Pride and Prejudice and Snails

by Mudpony

First published

A lost bet forces Diamond Tiara to ask Snails to a dance. But when Snails turns to Sweetie Belle for help with impressing his date, she develops feelings for him. And so what was to have been a simple victory for the CMC gets a bit more complicated.

After Diamond Tiara loses a bet to the Cutie Mark Crusaders, she has to ask Snails to the Hearts and Hooves Day Dance. But when Snails turns to Sweetie Belle for help in impressing his date, she realizes she is starting to develop feelings for him. And so what was to have been a simple victory for the CMC turns into something a bit more complicated.

Chapter 1

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Scootaloo raced down the street on her scooter, her wings buzzing, while her cart rattled behind her, filled with costumes, a spotlight, fireworks, and other essentials. Usually, if her cart contained something, it would be her two friends, the unicorn Sweetie Belle and the earth pony Apple Bloom. Together, they formed the Cutie Mark Crusaders, on a seemingly never ending quest to discover their special talent and earn their cutie marks. And today was going to be the day, the end of their blank flank status, Scootaloo just knew it.

For today was the day of the annual talent show and this year and they were going to do a rendition of Marc Anpony's big speech from William Gaitspeare's Julius Canter. They were sure to win Best Dramatic Performance with the changes Scootaloo had made. The sword fight alone was going to be so awesome, and that was just one of the improvements she had added in her role as director. After they received their award, everyone would be congratulating them, and Rainbow Dash would come up and tell her how it was the best play ever, and then they'd take off their costumes and pow: cutie mark city.

She was so lost in her daydream of the coming triumph that she almost failed to notice a colt on the street ahead of her. She threw herself to the side, barely missing Snails, as her scooter tilted, two of its tires leaving the ground. She threw her weight back toward the other side and would have successfully recovered, if not for the cart. The wild turn flipped it on its side, scattering its contents. The cart's side threw up dirt as it scraped along the road and the extra drag slowed the scooter. The next thing Scootaloo knew, she was thrown over the handlebars of her scooter, before rolling to a stop.

Snails's ever-present companion Snips, a short and bit overweight unicorn, ran up and asked, "Are you okay, Scootaloo?"

"Yeah, you okay?" echoed Snails.

Scootaloo got to her feet and checked herself over. Luckily, ponies were quite sturdy and she found nothing more than a few scrapes. Nothing worse than what she routinely got while crusading with her friends. Still, it annoyed her that her triumphant daydream had been interrupted in a most non-awesome way.

"Why can't you watch where you're going? I'm trying to pull a cart here! How do you expect me to when you're just walking through the street?" Scootaloo grumbled as she righted the cart and started to gather the spilled items.

"But you're supposed to walk on the street. That's what it is there for," Snips said, as he helped place the last of the items back in the cart.

"Yeah, well, whatever. Just watch where you're walking next time." And she was off.

Scootaloo arrived at the auditorium to find Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle rehearsing. The sight of her friends raised her spirits. "Heya, guys! I got all the stuff!"

Apple Bloom raced over to the cart. Sweetie Belle got up off the ground, where she had just been practicing one of her dramatic death scenes, and joined her friends. Scootaloo tossed each of them a wooden sword and costumes made by Sweetie Belle's sister Rarity. They quickly donned their costumes and took some practice swings with the swords.

"We'll be sure to win Best Dramatic Performance with these!" Sweetie Belle said.

"And get our cutie marks!" Apple Bloom replied.

A nearby earth pony, with a light magenta coat and a greyish pink and white mane, wearing a tiara and a fancy dress snickered at overhearing that. "Oh please, there's no way you're going to win Best Dramatic Performance. That is so going to Silver Spoon and I. And cutie marks? Unless they start giving those out for failing, you'll be blank flanks forever," Diamond Tiara said.

"Yeah, and what would a cutie mark for failing even look like?" added Silver Spoon, a grey earth pony filly.

"Probably like them," said Diamond Tiara, waving a forehoof at the three crusaders.

Both Silver Spoon and Diamond Tiara giggled and chanted, "Blank flanks, blank flanks! Blank flanks forever!"

"Nuh-uh, we are too going to get our cutie marks eventually. Mah sister said so!" Apple Bloom stated defiantly.

"And we're going to win Best Dramatic Performance as well, you just wait and see," Sweetie Belle added.

Diamond Tiara responded with a look that made it pretty clear how likely she thought that turn of events was going to be.

"Okay, let's see you put your bits where your mouth is. If we win an award, one of you has to do what we want, for an entire day. And if you win, one of us has to do something you want. Sound good?" Scootaloo challenged.

"Well, I suppose we could use a personal servant for a day. You're on," Diamond Tiara replied. With a quick hoofshake, Scootaloo and Diamond Tiara sealed the bet.

Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon left the Crusaders behind as they walked toward the dressing room, to get ready for their own act.

"This is going to be so great. What should we make them do?" Diamond Tiara wondered aloud as she and Silver Spoon entered the backstage area.

"We could make Apple Bloom dress, speak, and act like a civilized pony," suggested Silver Spoon. "That would be quite funny, and spare us from her barbaric accent for a day."

"How about we make Sweetie Belle sing in the town center? She'd be so embarrassed. It would be so funny," Diamond Tiara suggested. "Or we could make Scootaloo write and recite love poems. Can you just imagine the funny faces she would make?"

"Yes, it'd be totally funny," Silver Spoon said with a giggle. She suddenly stopped and said, "I just hope we don't lose..."

Diamond Tiara scoffed at the possibility. "There's no way. Everything about our act is perfect. The servants all said so when we did the act for them, remember? I mean, look at our dresses: they are gorgeous!" Diamond Tiara waved her hoof toward two beautiful dresses, complete with hats. "And we know all our lines perfectly."

"Because we're perfect! Unlike the tree sap trio," added Silver Spoon, her doubts soothed.

"Even our props are perfect for our act, like the chairs, table, and flowers." Diamond Tiara waved her hoof absentmindedly toward two chairs, a round wooden table, and an empty vase.

"Uhm, Diamond, our flowers are gone! Someone took our flowers!" Silver Spoon cried out.

"What?" Tiara said, swinging her head over to verify that the flowers were gone. Her jaw dropped at the sight of the vase devoid of flowers. Who could have done this? Was it the crusaders trying to sabotage their act? No, that seemed unlikely. Not because she did not believe them capable of it, but because they had not had the opportunity. They had arrived after she had and had not been inside yet. It would have been easy to blame them anyway, but she already had so many real reasons to dislike them, she really did not need to invent new ones to do so. She pondered who else in the show might have been responsible, but before she could settle on any likely suspect, she noticed her dad entering the backstage area.

"Hey, girls, ready to knock 'em dead out there? The butler told me it was quite the performance. I can't wait to see it for myself, princess," Filthy Rich said.

"Daddy! We can't go on. Someone stole our flowers. Our production is ruined! Ruined!" Diamond Tiara threw herself around her father, on the verge of sobbing.

Filthy Rich smiled at his daughter, quite used to her dramatic antics. "Nonsense, princess. We'll get you some other flowers, and you'll be right as rain."

"But, Daddy, the flowers we had were perfect. Any ones we find now won't be, and then our act won't be perfect and then we might not win and we need to win, daddy!" Diamond Tiara stretched the last word out, half plead, half whine.

Mr. Rich gently pushed his daughter away and looked her sternly in the eye. "You'll just have to find some new ones. And don't worry, you'll do fine. I know it. Besides, you said you would compete in the show, and so you will, princess. We Riches keep our word. And we don't let a little adversity stop us from succeeding. Plus what is it that they say in show business? 'The show must go on' or something like that?"

"But, Daddy—"

"Case closed, young lady," her father said, using his 'business' tone.

When her father used that tone, Diamond Tiara knew there was no point to arguing further, and so she watched sullenly as he left. She would have to find new flowers and they undoubtedly would not be perfect and that would mean their act was not perfect anymore, and then maybe the annoying crusaders would win. That would be bad, as they had no doubt choose her to embarrass.

Still, they were not going to get her without a fight. Maybe they could find some flowers that were good enough. And if not, they could always rely on the crusaders to screw up badly enough to not win an award. "Come on, Sil, we've got to find something and quick. We don't have much time before we're on."

"And the winner for Best Dramatic Performance is..." Miss Cheerilee waited out a dramatic pause before continuing, "Sunny Daze and Peachy Pie, for their reading of Captain Hook the Biker Gorilla!"

The crusaders breathed out a sigh of relief, as they had feared Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon might have won. Their own act had not gone over as well as they had hoped. They had not destroyed the stage like their musical number two years prior, but the audience reaction had not been what they were expecting. Not that Tiara and Spoon's act had gone smoothly. First they had been complaining about someone taking one of their props, until Miss Cheerilee had helped them find a replacement. And then, when they had gone on, they had made a few mistakes. Not major ones, but mistakes nonetheless.

The crusaders celebrated quietly that none of them would have to victim for a day of whatever undoubtedly cruel thing Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon would have thought of. So relieved were they that they quit paying attention to the award announcements and almost missed the last award of the night. Luckily, the mention of their name caught there attention and they quickly listened as Miss Cheerilee continued, "...Cutie Mark Crusaders for Best Comedy Act for their brilliant re-imagining of Julius Canter."

The crusaders collected their rewards, happy to have won but sad at the same time, as this was the second time they had manage to win the comedy act award when not trying to do comedy, while they'd failed to win it the previous year, when they had actually done a comedy act. With the awards handed out, the show was over, and the ponies exited off the stage.

Diamond Tiara barely waited until they were offstage before gleefully tearing into the crusaders. "Well, congratulations. You've once again failed so badly that everypony thinks you were doing it on purpose."

Silver Spoon added her piece. "Are you sure you haven't gotten cutie marks for failure yet? It certainly does seem to be your talent."

The three crusaders looked at their still blank flanks. There were few things that could crush the optimism of the crusaders, yet Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon always seemed to know exactly what to say. The solace that winning the comedy award had given them was gone. But not even those two fillies could keep the crusaders down for long, and this time was no exception.

Apple Bloom suddenly held her head up high with a big smile on her face. "Hey, wait a minute. We won a prize!"

"Yeah, but not even the one you were going for. That is even worse than not winning a prize at all," Diamond Tiara responded.

Scootaloo looked confused for a second, then a grin of her own sprung forth. "We did win a prize. That means we won the bet!"

"Yeah, so you have to, um, you have to..." Sweetie Belle said.

"Um," Apple Bloom added, as she tried to think of something worthy of Diamond Tiara.

Scootaloo looked around the room for an idea and her eyes fixed on Snails. An idea to pay him back and to really embarrass Diamond Tiara popped into her head. "You have to go with Snails to the Hearts and Hooves Day Dance!" Scootaloo said. The look of horror on Diamond Tiara's face was enough to have the other crusaders nodding in agreement. They quickly added their own thoughts.

"Yeah," said Apple Bloom, "and no telling him why either. He's got to believe it is for real."

"And you have to dance with him, slow dances and all!" added Sweetie Belle.

The three crusaders all nodded in agreement, smiling happily.

Diamond Tiara gave a look of horror. Her reputation would be ruined. She searched her mind, desperately trying to think of a way out of the bet. "But you guys didn't even win Best Dramatic Performance! You just screwed up so badly you got Best Comedy Performance!"

"The bet wasn't about what prize we'd win: just that we would win a prize," stated Scootaloo.

"And we did!" said both Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle.

Diamond Tiara tried another tack. "But...but that's not fair. It wasn't our fault our act was sabotaged."

“Yeah," chimed in Silver Spoon, "somepony stole the flowers we needed for our act, and it completely ruined our dramatic performance."

"Doesn't matter, a bet is a bet," Sweetie Belle said with a smug look of satisfaction on her face.

"Well, I'm not doing it. You can't make me," Diamond Tiara stated, in a last desperate attempt to avoid her fate.

"Okay then, Ah guess Ah'll just go tell your dad then." Apple Bloom shifted her voice in a bad impersonation of Filthy Rich, when Tiara had tried to get out of the talent show earlier that night. "You said you would compete in the show, and so you will, princess. We Riches keep our word."

"Yeah, Riches keep their word, right? So unless you want us to go to 'daddy', you've got to ask Snails," Scootaloo said, pointing towards Snails, who was over by the side exit. "Go ask him!"

Chapter 2

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Snails was happy. So far, it had been a pretty good night. Someone had been nice enough to leave a delicious snack backstage before the show. The S&S Magic Act had won the Best Magic Act award for the third straight year. This year, they'd added a few new tricks, though Miss Cheerilee still wouldn't let them try the Milk Can Escape. Maybe next year though. That would be cool. They'd be sure to win a fourth straight time with that trick. Yes, life was good.

He looked down at the medal around his neck. His was heavier than Snips's medal, he was sure of it. And shinier. So shiny he could see the reflection of the ponies across the room. He played with the angle of the medal a bit. Yup, that orange, white, and yellow blur would be the Crusaders. He changed the angle a bit more, only for the reflection to go pink. This puzzled him, so he looked up only to see Diamond Tiara standing there.

Maybe she had come over to congratulate him. That would be cool, but was not very likely. Or else she might have brought him some carrots. He liked carrots. Maybe they'd be carrots from Golden Harvest's garden. Those were the best carrots to be had in Ponyville. He moved his head around to see if she had any carrots, but sadly, she did not. Well, maybe he could go and get some. Luckily, he was standing right by the door. Wait... the door. That must be why Tiara was standing in front of him. She wanted to use the door.

"Um, Snails," said Diamond Tiara, startling Snails, "I was, actually..." Tiara, looked over her shoulder at the grinning Crusaders and the sympathetic look from Silver Spoon, then took a deep breath, gathering her resolve, "I was wondering if you'd like to go to the Hearts and Hooves Day Dance with me."

"Okay, I'll get out of your, wait, whaaaat?"

"Yes, magic act, impressed or something, and so I had to come over and ask right away. You aren't going with anyone else, are you?" asked Tiara, then she shook her head quickly to clear it. "Oh, wait, of course you aren't. So you'll go with me. It is settled. Now, you're blocking the door, get out of my way." She called back to Silver Spoon. "Come on, Sil, we're leaving."

Snails stepped to the side while his mind tried to grasp what just happened. Diamond Tiara had just asked him out?Him. She'd rarely said more than five words in a row to him before and they were usually "Get out of my way." But now, this. He needed time to think. Well, actually, he wasn't very good at thinking. He needed help to think. He needed to go find Snips. He'd know what to make of this.

Now, where would Snips be? He looked around the backstage area, seeing Miss Cheerilee and some other foals, but no sign of Snips. Maybe outside? He went through the door and around the front, where a decent number of adults still lingered. He wandered amongst them, looking for Snails, stopping from time to time to bask in the admiration of others when they complimented him on the S&S Magic Act. He liked attention. But he didn't wait for too long, he needed to find Snips. He made sure to thank them before he moved on though, as his mother had taught him that was the polite thing to do.

Failing to find Snips there, he pondered where to head next. Maybe Snips went home. Or maybe he went to Sugarcube Corner. They'd be open late tonight to cater to people coming back from the talent show and they'd have some great cupcakes, ones made by the Cakes themselves, not the ones made by Pinkie Pie. Not that Pinkie Pie's were bad, well, other than that one time all those ponies got sick, but the Mrs. Cakes' were the best. His stomach rumbled at the thought of a cupcake and that decided him. He'd go look for Snips at Sugarcube Corner first. And maybe, okay, definitely, get himself a cupcake. The thoughts of cupcakes translated to his face and his step gained a bit of a bounce, then as thoughts returned to Diamond Tiara, returned to normal, only to change again as thoughts returned to cupcakes, a cycle that continued as he made his way down the street.

Snails arrived at Sugarcube Corner and spotted Snips seated by himself at a small table. He decided that maybe Pinkie Pie had the right idea when the first place she generally went looking for someone was here. He called out to Snips and his short, rotund friend waved him over to his table with a half eaten cupcake in hoof. Another one sat in front of him, next to the wrapper of a third.

"Want a cupcake?" Snips asked. He pushed the untouched cupcake towards the other side of the table, while continuing to talk without giving Snails a chance to respond. "We sure were awesome tonight. I bet if Trixie had seen us, she'd have made us her apprentices for sure."

"Yeah, that would be awesome!" replied Snails, as he seated himself and took a bite of the cupcake. "So good!" He lost himself in the cupcake for a bit, savoring its flavor. He pondered raising the topic of Diamond Tiara, but decided to take another bite of cupcake instead. Meanwhile, Snips chatted happily on how well their magic act had gone, recounting the high points of the night. He'd said pretty much the same stuff after the show, but Snails didn't mind. From time to time, he'd repeat the last thing Snips said in an affirmative manner, then take another bite of cupcake until, at last, the cupcake was gone.

When Snips finished with his tale of their grand finale, he took advantage of the opportunity to change the topic. He leaned in closer to Snips and, in a hushed voice, asked "What do you think of Diamond Tiara?"

Snips took a moment to pondered the question, then replied, "Well, she's the prettiest girl in school, but she's not very nice to anyone she doesn't consider worth her time and that's like half the class. Including us. So I guess I try not to."

"Do you think a pony like her could--"

With Snails slow rate of speech, Snips had plenty of time to figure out where Snails's sentence was heading and cut him off. "No. There's no way. You know that. I thought you got over her three years ago?" recalling that his friend had embarrassed himself pretty badly back then, trying to win Tiara's affections, following her around like the love sick colt he was. It had not been one of his finer moments.

"Well, she sorta asked me to dance."

"Asked you?"

"Maybe more like told."

"That doesn't make sense. It must be a prank or something."

"But what if it isn't it, Snips?" asked Snails optimistically, for while he had given up hope of his daydreaming from three years ago becoming reality, the little cruelties Tiara and her friends had inflicted upon him over the years had yet to fully extinguished it entirely. "What if this is my one chance? Will I ever get so much as a hoof in the door again? Even if it is a joke, got to try and hope for the best, right?"

Unlike most of his classmates, Snips knew that Snails was capable of some deep thoughts, just that it took him longer to get there than most other ponies. And that he tended to take the path of least resistance, often didn't bother to try and to think things through on his own, but rather just took his lead from others, usually Snips. But even knowing that, this speech caught Snips off guard. It just wasn't that often that Snails said so much at once or about anything so serious.

"Well, I guess I can see that. Buddy, I hope you know what you're getting us into."


"Well, sure, you wouldn't think I'd let you try to impress her highness by yourself, right? We've been best friends for as long as I can remember, no way I'm abandoning you at this hour of need. Besides, this could be something big for us. If you were dating Diamond Tiara, we'd be cool, popular!"

"I'll be ruined! Completely uncool. This is such a disaster. When I get my hooves on whoever stole our flowers, I'm going, I don't know what, but it'll be something they'll rue for the rest of their life. A life I'll do my best to insure is a long and miserable one," ranted Diamond Tiara.

"We so should have gotten the Best Dramatic Act award anyway, even without the flowers," said Silver Spoon. "We were robbed. If the judges had been fair, this wouldn't be happening."

"Well, we'd have had it for sure if those flowers hadn't disappeared." Diamond Tiara stopped and sighed. "What am I going to do, Sil? Having to go to the dance with Snails, that will be even more embarrassing than when my dad made me hop around the mud farm in that bunny costume."

"I don't know, but we'll think of something. No way I'm going to let those three ruffians get the best of my best friend. We still have a couple of weeks to think of something."

The two fillies were heading back to Diamond Tiara's house. They had planned to go to Sugarcube Corner after the show so that everyone could admire their awards, to be followed by a sleepover to celebrate their award winning performance but neither was in much of a mood to celebrate now. Instead, they strode the rest of the way to Tiara's home in silence each lost in thought.

Praiseworthy, the Rich's butler, an aging grey stallion with a covered plate cutie mark, greeted them at the door, taking note of their demeanor. "Evening, young misses. The show not go as well as hoped?"

"It was horrible, Praise. We didn't win. Someone took our flowers and we had to get replacement ones," Tiara started.

Silver Spoon picked it up from there. "And we couldn't find any red ones to replace them, when our lines specifically mentioned they were red. We wound up using daisies."

"Well, I'm sure both of you were still wonderful, even so. I wish I could have been there to cheer you on. But I know what will cheer you right up. How about some nice hot chocolate?"

Diamond Tiara doubted the drink would help her mood, but she knew Praiseworthy would be hurt if she didn't let him do something, so she nodded. While he went off to prepare the drinks, Tiara and Spoon moved to the Sitting Room. Praiseworthy returned shortly and, contrary to Diamond Tiara's expectations, the drink did lift her spirits. And it looked like Silver Spoon's as well. Silently, both fillies agreed to set aside their worries for now. Instead, time was spent playing with toys, discussing fashion, and playing with the piano in the music room.

Eventually, Praiseworthy informed the girls that it was time to wash up and prepare for bed. The fillies made a halfhearted attempt to delay this development, but without success. Diamond Tiara crawled into her own prince sized canopy bed, while Silver Spoon used a smaller guest bed Praiseworthy had set up in the room for that purpose and the two girls had pushed up adjacent to Tiara's.

Settled in, they returned to their conversation from the walk home. Neither had had any good ideas in the meantime and the talk went around in circles until it was interrupted as someone knocked quietly on the door. "Tia, Silver Spoon, you still awake?" Mr. Rich called out quietly.

"Yes, Daddy," answered Diamond Tiara.

Rich opened the door. "You girls have fun tonight? Sorry I got back so late, got wrapped up in business." That was something Tiara was used to. Her father was often away on business. She spent more time with the household help with him. But that just made any time she got with him all the more precious. "Your act was wonderful," he said, as he kissed Tiara goodnight. "Both you girls did great. Now, don't stay up too late, remember, you've got school tomorrow."

"Yes, dad," both girls replied and giggled as Mr. Rich softly closed the door behind him. Sleepovers weren't an uncommon thing when it came to Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon, at either house, and both girls had taken to answering certain questions in unison, as if they were sisters with two sets of parents.

Once her dad left, Diamond Tiara returned to the previous topic of discussion. "So, I can't think of anything that'll get me out of it. Unless I get hospitalized or something."

"Yes, yes, that could work!"

"I AM not going to get injured or use some Heart's Desire like a pathetic loser just to get out of this."

"Oh, that wasn't what exactly I was thinking--"

"Good, because if I see you come near me with a shovel, I'm going to run away screaming and I'm not stopping no matter how much you shout that you're just trying to help."

Both fillies started to giggle as they imagined the scene. When the giggles ended, the grey filly suddenly started to giggle again. Diamond Tiara cocked her head questioningly. Silver Spoon managed to contain her giggling for a bit. "I was just imagining if I was trying to use my mom's smallest rubber jewelry hammer instead. It'd take forever!" Both fillies started to laugh.

"Anyway, what I was thinking is you could just pretend to be sick," Silver Spoon said, raising her hoof to silence Tiara's objection. "Yes, I know it won't work for the whole time, but it will be good enough for tomorrow. Tomorrow is friday, so that means we have an entire weekend to think of something else."

"And even if we can't think of anything else, that's three days for it to be old news." Diamond Tiara gave Silver Spoon a tight hug. "Good thinking, Sil, you're the best."

The two best friends spent the next bit planning for the next morning, then shifted topics to discuss the latest dress styles coming out of Canterlot, before drifting off to sleep.

Filthy Rich looked up from the papers he was reading as Praiseworthy knocked softly on the open door of the study to get his attention. "What is it, Praise?"

"I'm sorry for the interrupting, sir. It is the young miss. She claims to be sick."

From Praiseworthy's tone of voice, Rich could tell that the butler didn't believe his daughter was actually sick. It wouldn't have been the first time. No doubt she was probably worried because she hadn't won an award last night. He loved his daughter dearly, but she could be a silly filly at times. "Okay, thanks, Praise, I'll take care of it."

He set down the papers and went to his daughter's room. Tiara lay in bed and let out a dramatic moan when he entered. Silver Spoon stood close by and spoke up, "She had said she wasn't feeling well last night, Mr. Rich, and this morning, she was all cold and sweaty."

Rich moved closer to his daughter and put his hoof to her forehead. She shivered as his hoof came in contact. She felt cold and damp. A bit too damp. Dropping his hoof back down to the floor, he checked under the bed. Sure enough, there was a container that still held some cold water.

He put on a stern face to mask the amusement he felt as he held up the container. "Sick, huh?" Both fillies had the sense to look guilty, though more likely due to getting caught than from any real remorse.

He sat down on the bed, next to his daughter. "Now, I know that failing to win an award can seem like the end of the world at your age, but it isn't. There will be other shows, other awards. In a couple of weeks, you won't even remember last night, okay?"

Both fillies dutifully nodded.

Mr. Rich kissed his daughter on the forehead. "Okay, now hurry up and get ready for school No more fooling around or you'll be late. Now, I've got some work to finish. I'll see you later tonight, okay, Princess?" Another kiss on the forehead as she nodded her head, and he exited the room, heading back to the study.

Rich chuckled as he sat at his desk and picked up the papers he'd been reading earlier. Ah, to be young again, life was so simple then. And a lot more fun than sorting through purchase contracts from local farms for his latest store.

Chapter 3

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Sweetie Belle wracked her brain trying to come up with a good suggestion. "Cutie Mark Crusader Dirty Deed Doers?" she offered.

"Nah, that sounds, well, dirty," replied Apple Bloom.

Sweetie Belle admitted to herself that it wasn't a very good name. Like her companions, Sweetie Belle sat silently as they continued to try to think of a name. Tradition held that thinking of a good name was the last step before implementing a plan to get their cutie marks and they often applied the same thinking to non-cutie mark related plans. They needed to come up with something fast, otherwise they wouldn't make it to the schoolhouse in time to claim the seats they wanted for today.

She looked around the clubhouse, the base of operations for the CMC, her eyes scanning the walls. They were covered in crayon drawings of various plans the CMC had to get their cutie marks. No help there. One section of wall was almost a shrine to Rainbow Dash, Scootaloo's doing, for the little pegasus idolized the rainbow maned flyer. Rainbow Rampagers? No, that was stupid as well. She wasn't very good at thinking up names. Usually it was Apple Bloom who came up with the names, though Scootaloo had her share as well.

As if hearing that thought, Scootaloo offered a suggestion. "Cutie Mark Crusader Tiara Punters?"

"I like it, " said Apple Bloom, no doubt imagining a two hooved apple bucking move sending a tiara flying into the distance while a distraught Diamond Tiara looked on.

Sweetie Belle wasn't so sure though. They weren't actually planning to punt the diamond tyrant or her tiara. She preferred a name that better reflected what they intended to do. It was one of her quirks, liking precision when it came to her wording and something Scootaloo occasionally teased her about. "Don't you think that makes us sound like ruffians? We don't really want to smash anything, just get her back for some of the mean things she's done to us."

"Cutie Mark Crusader Payback Ponies?" offered Apple Bloom.

Sweetie Belle contemplated for a second and nodded, at the same time as Scootaloo. Yes, payback was the right word for what they had in mind. With the last step of planning completed, the fillies quickly gathered up their things and headed off to school.

Diamond Tiara sighed upon seeing Snips and Snails attempting to nonchalantly stand around talking up ahead along the route she and Silver Spoon usually took to school. In light of his behavior the last time he'd had a crush on her, she should have expected this and taken a different route. Unfortunately, her thoughts had been focused on the school day itself and not the walk to school and so she had overlooked this possibility. Still, if they had not seen her yet, there might still be time to adjust their route. "Dorks ahead. Think they've seen us yet?"

"Yeah, too late, incoming dweeb patrol," Silver Spoon remarked as Snips and Snails pretended to look surprised at seeing the two fillies and headed their way.

"Oh, hey, Tiara, Spoon, you guys heading to class?" Snips asked.

"No, we're going to the Everfree Forest to pull on a manticore's whiskers, want to come?" Silver Spoon said. She waited a second for her sarcasm to sink in, before continuing, "Of course, we're going to school."

"And if we don't keep moving, we're going to be late for class. I hate being late," added Tiara.

"Well, we're heading there too," said Snips, stating the obvious.

"Yeah, we'll walk with you," offered Snails.

It occurred to Tiara that it was going to be a long day.

Normally, Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon were the first students to arrive for class. Tiara liked being early because it gave her some time to chat with Miss Cheerilee before class begin, maybe help her set up some things for the day's class. It was one of the things she'd learned from her father, to stay on the good side of those in power, do them little favors and small courtesies so that when you needed something, there was a positive relationship already there and you were more likely to get what you wanted. And so she made sure to get some brownie points in early, before the rest of the class arrived, so that they would not see her do it.

Arriving early also meant Tiara and Spoon could pick whatever desks they wanted. Usually, that meant ones in the front two rows. She liked to think it was because she wanted to maintain the image of a good student, but the truth was that she genuinely liked school and learning. Well, unless the lessons were about something that she'd never have a use for. Then she found it hard to stay focused.

Diamond Tiara surveyed the class room, relieved that there was still a desk available in the front row, between Scootaloo and Apple Bloom. It was not her preferred spot though. That spot was the left most seat in the front row and currently occupied by Scootaloo. She walked up to the desk and glared at the offending filly, but the orange pegasus pointedly ignored her, making it clear she had no intention of moving. Miss Cheerilee took that moment to call the class to order, so Tiara slid into the empty chair between the two.

Diamond Tiara found the first hour of class pretty boring. Miss Cheerilee was teaching about stars and constellations and how they could be used to navigate at night. Useless stuff for any civilized pony. After that, she went on to English grammar and Tiara became more interested, as it was her favorite subject. She liked knowing how the language worked and she enjoyed using that knowledge to correct others. She was just getting into the lesson when a sound jarred her out of it.

"Pssst," hissed Apple Bloom to Tiara's right. Diamond Tiara turned her head to the left, pointedly ignoring Apple Bloom. This left her facing Scootaloo though, who jerked her head in the direction of Apple Bloom. Apple Bloom repeated herself, louder this time, "Pssst!" Scootaloo again signaled Diamond Tiara to pay attention to Apple Bloom again with another jerk of her head. They weren't going to stop, figured Tiara, and she turned to Apple Bloom, who held out a folded piece of paper to Diamond Tiara, wanting her to pass it to Scootaloo. Diamond Tiara took the paper from Apple Bloom and held it out for Scootaloo.

"Diamond Tiara! Are you passing a note?" Miss Cheerilee asked, reaching out and taking the note. "Well, let's see what it says, then." She unfolded the note to reveal to the class a crayon drawing of a light magenta filly and an orange colt sitting under a tree kissing. "Couldn't this wait until lunch break?"

"Yeah, Tiara, can you wait until lunch for that?" Apple Bloom asked, making a kissy face, much to the class's amusement.

Diamond Tiara blushed with embarrassment and turned away from Apple Bloom, only to see Scootaloo making kissy faces at her as well. She looked straight ahead and let her head drop onto her desk. This day could not end soon enough.

When Miss Cheerilee called for lunch, the classroom emptied quickly as the foals headed outside to enjoy the sunny weather, with two exceptions. Usually, lunch was Snails's second favorite part of the school day and he and Snips would be the first ones out of the door. Today though, he stayed at his desk a bit as others left and Snips waited for him.

This morning's plan hadn't gone so well. Snips's plan had seemed foalproof. 'Accidentally' meet up with Diamond Tiara and then walk her to school. Snips would keep Silver Spoon busy, leaving Snails free to chat with Tiara. But in practice, it'd run into a few hiccups. The two fillies had arrived considerably later than expected. As a result, he and Snips had gotten bored, let their watch down, and so been standing still chatting when the fillies noticed them, rather ruining the plausibility of the accidental meet up. Added to that, Tiara hadn't seemed eager to see him and Snips and Silver Spoon even less so. Silver Spoon hadn't cooperated at all with the plan, pretty much ignoring Snips. And as a final straw, the same tardiness that ruined the start of the plan also meant that they had to move at a brisk pace to make it to class on time, not leaving much time for talking. Overall, a total bust.

Then there was what happened right before lunch. That sort of behavior wasn't like the Crusaders. And while they meant it to hurt Tiara, it hurt him as well. That they thought so little of him, like he wasn't worthy of her. "They all think nothing of me," he said to Snips, "that any filly going out with me should be made fun of."

"That's silly, you know you have lots to offer, you're a prime catch, we're both prime catches!" exclaimed Snips. "And, you know what, you should totally go lay into them for making fun of Tiara that way."


"Like in the comic books, you know the ladies always like the hero who rescues them. Swoop in and save the day like Black Jack or Colt Masterson. So go out there and give them Crusaders a piece of your mind, be the hero, a knight in shining armor. Come on, let's go!" he exclaimed as he used his head to shove Snails towards the door.

Snails figured it sounded like a good idea and headed out the door. Once through it, he looked around the playground to locate Diamond Tiara, finding her sitting under a tree with Silver Spoon and another of their circle of friends, eating lunch. The Crusaders were nearby, making kissy faces at Tiara whenever she looked in their direction. Snails ran up to them and gave the best heroic speech he could come up with. "Stop being mean!" Okay, he thought, maybe that wasn't the best speech, as the Crusaders all faced him with mouths open in shock, before bursting into laughter.

Diamond Tiara felt her anger rising. Being teased by the Crusaders was bad enough, but now Snails was trying to stand up for her? Okay, it would almost but cute if she wasn't who she was. But she was Diamond Tiara, she didn't need rescuing. Maybe it was time to go on the offensive. She got up and walked over to Apple Bloom,shoving her roughly with a hoof to get her attention. "I'll go with whoever I want and I won't have you making fun of it. I'm Diamond Tiara, I don't need the approval of you or anyone else. Snails and I are going to be the toast of the ball. Just you watch."

On impulse, Diamond Tiara grabbed hold of Snails and proceeded to do a dance step, only to discover he didn't have a clue how to do any actual dancing. His legs became entangled in hers and they collapsed in a jumble, much to the amusement of the Crusaders and the other foals watching the commotion.

"Burnt toast of the ball maybe," quipped Apple Bloom.

Diamond Tiara disentangled herself and raced back inside the school house, head hanging low, the rest of her lunch forgotten.

Sweetie Belle watched the embarrassed Tiara run off. For some reason, she didn't get as much enjoyment from seeing Tiara get humiliated as she'd expected. And there was a hint of something else. Was it guilt? Or was it pity? Was she actually feeling sorry for the filly who terrorized their lives on a n almost daily basis?

She watched as Snails slowly got up and shook his head slowly at the Crusaders, before turning towards the schoolhouse, as if contemplating whether Tiara would want to see him. Apparently, he decided she wouldn't, as he headed off towards some benches instead, with Snips trailing along.

"He's right, you know," said Sweetie Belle, said to the others. "We're not acting like ourselves, we're acting like her."

"Bah, she deserves it and you know it," said Scootaloo, displaying a stubbornness that would do her idol Rainbow Dash proud.

Apple Bloom also wasn't up for relenting. She'd suffered from Diamond Tiara's attention longer than any of them. "Yeah, she's been drivin' us crazy forever. An' now we've got a couple of weeks to get some payback and I reckon we should take it. Got to harvest the Zap Apples while the harvesting is good."

"Maybe, but maybe we're going too far. That drawing didn't just hurt Tiara, it hurt Snails' feelings too and he doesn't deserve that." With that, she turned away from her friends and headed over towards where Snips and Snails were, leaving her friends to think through her words. She doubted it'd do much immediate good, but she could hope. They'd come around in time, anyway.

Approaching the table, she took a seat opposite Snails. "I'm sorry, Snails, I shouldn't have laughed. What we did was a thoughtless prank. We should have thought it through better. Its just she makes fun of us so often, well, we acted without thinking. Can you forgive us? Is there anything I could do to make it up to you?"

Snails opened his mouth to reply, but before he could get a word out, Snips jumped in with a suggestion of his own. "Yeah, dance lessons!"


Snips explained. "Dance lessons. You saw Snails out there, he's got four left hooves. He's going to need some serious help or the night of the dance will be a complete disaster. Your sister is into all the fancy stuff, she probably knows lots of fancy dancing. And they'll play some of that stuff at the dance. If Snails could do that, it'd probably really impress Tiara. Or, at the very least, stop a repeat of what we just saw."

Sweetie Belle felt even worse, seeing their enthusiasm about the upcoming dance. It had seemed like such a good idea at the time, embarrass Tiara and get a little payback on Snails for causing Scootaloo to crash with their costumes. But now he was taking it seriously, staking hopes of a relationship on it, and might really get hurt. Should she tell him about the bet, let him know why Tiara had asked him? She looked over her shoulder, towards where Scootaloo and Apple Bloom were re-enacting the failed dance. No, she couldn't do that. Her friends would be upset if she did. But she could at least warn him that Tiara wasn't serious. "You know this is probably all a cruel joke, right?" she said. That was the truth, after all, even if it wasn't Tiara who was playing the joke.

"He knows it might be," replied Snips. "But whether it is or not, this is his one chance, you know? How likely is he to get another?

"Yeah, my one chance," echoed Snails.

Guilt wracked Sweetie Belle. Perhaps helping Snails would ease some of it. Besides, learning to dance could help him later in life, she rationalized, when he found a filly that was actually interested him. "Fine, I'll talk to my sister about dance lessons. But don't blame me if this turns out badly."

Diamond Tiara breathed a sigh of relief, as Cheerilee dismissed the class. The day was over at last. Scootaloo and Apple Bloom had continued to tease her throughout the day and a couple of others had joined in as well. It just wasn't fair. This sort of thing wasn't supposed to happen to her. She was better than the others, prettier and richer. Making fun of others was her job.

The classroom filled with the sound of books being scooped and up and deposited in bags, chairs being moved, and the pounding of hooves as young ponies raced out of the classroom to enjoy the weekend. Apple Bloom took a moment to whisper a quick "dance, dance, super trip, splat!" Tiara gave a reflexive "Blank flank" as a response, but the earth pony was already gone in a streak of yellow, red, and giggles. She gathered up her things and headed towards the door, her head lowered.

Silver Spoon ned her and together they headed out. "You know, I think you had the right idea at lunch."

"Oh, yeah, falling on my face was a brilliant plan."

"No, not that. You've been letting them get to you, like you're doing something wrong. Like anything could bring you down. But the only thing that can do that is you. You going with Snails to the dance doesn't lower you, it brings him up. He's lucky, the luckiest colt in school. You're still you. Or at least, you would be if you quit acting like you had something to be ashamed of."

The two friends walked in silence, Silver Spoon having said her piece and Diamond Tiara considering her best friend's words. The more she thought about it, the more she realized her friend was right. She needed to quit acting like she was some undesirable and resume being her normal self, the most popular filly in school.

"You're right, Sil. I'm going to quit moping. I am still me and he is lucky to get to go with me. I'm going to pretend I'm actually looking forward to this, that I really want to go to the dance with Snails. I'm going to turn this around on them. I'm not going to let them win." She raised her head and walked proudly down the street, her tiara's diamonds glistening in the afternoon sun.

Chapter 4

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Sweetie Belle strolled happily down the street, enjoying the sunny Saturday morning. She greeted ponies happily as she went and was greeted in return. She was on her way to have breakfast with her sister, Rarity, at the Carousel Boutique. And maybe Rarity would let her help with some designs. Though that would probably mean standing quietly in a corner and bringing her the occasional item.

She pushed upon the door to the boutique, the bell tinkling as she entered, alerting the store owner to the entrance of customers. Sometimes, if Rarity was hit with a burst of inspiration while helping a client, the store might have something out of place, but right now, the store was in its usual state. Everything had a place and was in it.

"Sweetie Belle, is that you?" Rarity called out from the kitchen. "Breakfast is almost ready."

"On my way." Sweetie Belle headed through a doorway that led to the living area and turned into the kitchen. The scent of cooking food was in the air and she inhaled it, savoring the aroma. Her sister was a good a cook. "Smells great, Rarity!" She sat down at her usual place at the table to wait for Rarity to finish cooking.

Rarity stood in front of the stove, her horn glowing as she lifted some spices and sprinkled them on to what she was cooking, paused for a second, and then added just a little bit more. "Perfect," she said, as she returned the spices to their place on the shelf. Her horn glowed again as she lifted up the pan, expertly flipped the contents, and set the pan down on the stove again. She hummed a little tune while waiting for the food to finish cooking. "And done!"

Sweetie Belle watched as Rarity cut the breakfast quiche and arranged the pieces in an aesthetically pleasing way on the plates, then added some parsley for garnish. Her stomach rumbled in anticipation. "Come on, sis! I want to eat already!"

"Anything worth doing is worth doing well, Sweetie," answered Rarity, as she floated the plates over to the table.

Sweetie Belle dug into hers with much gusto, taking a bit that was too large for her to chew properly with her mouth closed. Noticing Rarity's disapproval, she swallowed it as quickly as she could, looked up at her sister with an apologetic grin. She picked up her fork and waited impatiently until Rarity seated herself. The moment Rarity used her horn to lift her own fork, Sweetie plunged hers into her quiche, started to prepare a big bite, then thought better of it and took a smaller bite instead. More ladylike, as her sister would call it.

Breakfast continued with Rarity carrying on most of the conversation, talking about what orders she had to fill, the latest fashion trends, and some gossip from Canterlot, but she did make an effort to involve her sister in the conversation, as well as trying to get involved in some topics that were more to Sweetie's interests than her own. Sweetie Belle, having long since finished off her breakfast, took advantage of Rarity taking a bite to get in a question, "so, who you taking to the Hearts and Hooves Day Dance?"

"Who are you taking," Rarity corrected automatically. "And I'm not sure if I'll go. I'll be so busy with orders, with everyone else wanting to look their best, that I doubt I'll have the energy left. Still, sacrifices must be made for fashion. Although I think Caesar might be thinking of asking me. He's been into the store several times last week, claimed to be just browsing. Why do you ask?"

"Well, see there's this colt in my class," Sweetie Belle said as Rarity's ears perked up with interest, "and he's trying to impress a certain filly at the dance by being able to dance all fancy like they do in Canterlot and he sort of asked me if you could teach him. And you could teach me at the same time, it will be a fun thing to do as sisters." Sweetie Belle looked hopefully at her sister with a smile on her face.

"I don't know if I will have the time, dear. I've got the order to finish for Hoity Toity and there will be all those new orders coming."

The smile dropped off of Sweetie Belle's face, melting into a look of dejection. "Okay, I understand," she said softly.

Sweetie Belle's despondent face nearly breaking her heart, Rarity thought over her schedule for the next couple of weeks and looked at the calendar on the wall. "Well, if I move that fitting to Thursday and push back the Appaloosa order until after the dance, and if I take a few less orders, yes, I think that will work. That should leave me with about an hour each day," she said softly to herself. Turning back to Sweetie, she said, "Okay, I can teach you and your friend. At closing time, Monday through Friday, and don't be late."

Sweetie Belle threw herself out of her chair and rushed over to hug Rarity. "Thanks, you are my best big sister ever!"

With breakfast finished, the siblings gathered up the plates, brought them to the sink, washed them, as well as the pans and implements Rarity used to cook breakfast, and placed them on a dish rack to dry. With that out of the way, Rarity took the table cloth outside, shook off any crumbs on it, then carefully placed it on the table. "Okay, all done. Now, I'm going to need to get some work in on that order for Hoity before the pet play date later today. You going to be okay on your own?

"Oh, yeah, I need to find Snails so I can tell him about the dance lessons. And at noon, I am meeting Apple Boom and Scootaloo at the clubhouse. We are going to try to get our cutie marks in badmitten!"


Sweetie Belle was running late to make her noon meeting with the rest of the CMC at the clubhouse. It had taken a bit longer than she'd expected to track down Snails. She'd tried his home first, but his mom had explained that he was out with Snips. She'd tried Snips's mom next, but she didn't know where the two colts were at either. And so Sweetie had tried various places she thought they might be, Sugarcube Corner, the toy store, and the library, before finally finding them at one of the lakes.

Snails had been happy to hear the news and Snips had gone into a little jig before slipping on the slimy ground around the lake, sending both colts tumbling into the water. They rose up from the water laughing and started an impromptu mud and water fight. Sweetie Belle ducked as a chunk of mud flew past her head and figured that was her sign to get out of there. She'd yelled her goodbyes over her shoulder as she ran off to meet with her friends.

She'd done her best to make good time, but it was a decent distance away and it had already been near noon when she'd found the two colts. But now she was here at last. Time to earn her cutie mark. She bounded up the ramp and slammed into the shut and locked door with a loud thump. She shook her head to clear it, remembering that she was late and so her friends had probably started the meeting without her and locked the door so nopony else could barge in on their plans. From inside, she could hear papers being shuffled and some hushed whispers and she could imagine her two friends quickly stashing various cutie mark gaining plans out of sight, doing a quick glance to make sure nothing was missed, and then nodding to each that all was ready. And right on queue, Apple Bloom called out asking who was there, while Scootaloo demanded the password at the same time.

""It's me, who else do you think it'd be?" she called out.

The door opened and her friends exclaimed "you're here!"

"Of course I am here. Today's the day we get our cutie marks and become the Net Masters. There's no way I would miss that." She glanced suspiciously at both of her friends. "Hey, wait a minute, why did you guys sound surprised?"

Scootaloo looked away and then back. "Well, yesterday at school you were so angry at us and then you weren't here and it got later and later and we wasn't sure if you were still angry over us teasing Tiara like that."

"Yeah, we thought maybe you were so angry about how Snails got caught in our little trick that yah didn't want to be our friend no more, " added Apple Bloom.

Sweetie Belle looked back and forth at her two friends. "Now why would you think a silly thing like that? I'm just worried that we are taking it too far. Yes, Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon are not the nicest ponies. Especially not for the two of you."

It was something Sweetie had noticed, that Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon tended to focus their viciousness on her two friends over anyone else. She supposed that the Scootaloo bit came from Scootaloo being quick to rise to the bait or to the defense of her friends, as well as being an easy target due to her inability to fly and blank flank. With Apple Bloom she didn't know the exact specifics, but the start of their feud seemed to lie somewhere in their past, before the Crusaders had met each other. She'd asked Apple Bloom about it once and all Sweetie had gotten from the earth pony was that she and Diamond Tiara had once been best friends, when they were very young, but their friendship had ended after Tiara had started a fight with her. Apple Bloom had not been sure why the fight had started, but since then, Tiara had had it out for her.

"But I don't want this getting out of hand," Sweetie continued. "No hurting anypony, that's all I was saying. A bit of fun at Tiara's expense, okay. And as for thinking I would hide away from you, shame on you! Scootaloo, we've known each other how long now?"

Scootaloo mumbled something inaudible while looking properly chargrined.

"And you, Apple Bloom, do you think I'd abandon my best friends, my fellow Cutie Mark Crusaders, over something like a little prank at school?"

"Well, not when yah put it that way," admitted Apple Bloom.

"Now, we won't speak of this ever again," Sweetie said, doing a good impression of her sister, causing both of the other fillies to laugh. "Cutie Mark Crusader group hug!" declared Sweetie Belle. And the three came together in a pile of mutual affection and all was right again in the clubhouse.

"Alright, let's go play some badmitten," Scootaloo said, picking up a racquet in her mouth.

"Badminton," corrected Sweetie Belle.

Snails looked idly around the library, feeling a bit bored. He didn't come here that often, just when some assignment from Cheerilee required some research. It wasn't that he didn't like books, but rather that he read rather slowly and preferred doing other things rather than reading. Things like playing pirate by the lake with Snips. This meant that he usually wouldn't finish a book in the maximum time one was allowed to check books out from the library. During the winter, he'd get a few books in, but during the rest of the year, when the weather was better, he didn't bother.

Snips though had insisted they come here, after they'd swam around a bit to wash off the mud and were sufficiently dried off to insure that Miss Sparkle wouldn't kick them out of the library to protect her precious books. They were here to get a book on manners. All part of Snips's plan to make sure Snails impressed Diamond Tiara on the night of the dance. Snails wasn't sure what good it would do, but Snips seemed to think it was a good idea, so he went along.

And so they were waiting for Miss Sparkle, the town librarian, to finish dictating a letter to her assistant. Snails had listened for a bit, it was something about the extra room and special training, starting next week or something, with some complaints in between about having to shift work and experiments around. The complaints were worded carefully, as if Miss Sparkle was being careful not to offend the receiving party, but he knew complaints when he heard them.

Then he'd gotten bored and had decided to try and find the appropriate book he wanted. There wasn't a single section for all the books about subjects that started with "M" though, so he'd quickly given up and decided to just wait it out. How the library was organized just didn't make much sense to him and it seemed like every time it was in here, everything changed.

He'd watched for a bit as Snips checked the lower level books, but had grown bored of that and let his mind start wandering. He was glad that Snips had thought of that. By himself, he was pretty sure it would not have occurred to him until after the dance, by which time it was far too late. Although two weeks wasn't a long time. He'd have to work hard, really apply himself. But he could do that when he had a good reason to. He let himself lapse into a daydream of himself sweeping across the dance floor with Diamond Tiara held close and smiled blissfully. A daydream that was interrupted as Snips tapped him on the shoulder.

He looked around at Snips, who direct his attention to Miss Sparkle, who was clearly done with her letter and waiting for him to explain to her just what he was looking for. "Manners, I need to learn about manners," he said.

"Manors? I think we have a book or two about that in the things things live in section," replied the librarian, her horn starting to glow as she prepared to take down some books.

Before she could fully pull down the volumes, Snips spoke up. "Not manors, Miss Sparkle, but manners, etiquette, how to act all proper like."

"Ah, well, are you sure you don't want either of these two as well? Housing Styles of the Last Century is quite the fascinating read. No? Okay, well, then, let's see, The Sophisticate's Guide to Tea Parties? Decorum for a Dragon's Den? Proper Protocols for Weaseltopia? Or maybe The Polished Gentlepony's Guide to All Things? And then there's--"

"Yeah, that one. Polished Gentlepony for sure," said Snails, interrupting the purple unicorn before she could spout off another half dozen book titles or more.

"There you are. We've been looking all over for you," Diamond Tiara called out as she at last found Snails. She and Silver Spoon had been looking for him for the last hour, checking spots she figured he might be and, after her knowledge of him was exhausted with the first few places visited, by finding and asking other ponies she thought might know. That had led her to other places, but without any success. Silver Spoon had been getting crankier as time had passed and, to be honest with herself, so had Tiara. She had been just about to suggest giving up to Silver Spoon when who should round the corner ahead of them but their quarry and his ever present companion.

"Well, here we are, you've found us," said Snips happily.

"Yeah, you found us," echoed Snails.

Diamond Tiara waited, awaiting an apology by the duo for being hard to find, an apology that didn't come quickly, and so she moved on to her reason for having gone looking for Snails in the first place. "Silver Spoon and I are going to get dresses ordered for the dance."

"Oh, both of you, huh?" Snips asked, then turned to Silver Spoon and wiggled his eyebrows. "Who are you going with, Silver Spoon?"

"Someone else," replied Silver Spoon. Looking at Snails, she continued, "look, our point is we're going to order some dresses and we figured you wouldn't have anything appropriate to wear."

Seeing Snails start to get offended by the assertion that he didn't have any clothing worthy of the dance, Diamond Tiara quickly stepped in to soften the blow. "And by that, we mean something that will match my dress, of course, not that you don't have anything nice to wear. Couldn't have us clashing or anything, could we?" she said.

"No, I guess that makes sense," said Snails.

"Good, then it is settled, we're going to the best place in town, the Carousel Boutique. And don't worry about the cost, I got daddy to spring for it. Come on, let's go... or do you have something more important to do?"

Upon seeing they didn't, Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon turned and started to head toward the clothing shop, though with a quick glance over their shoulder to see if the colts were following behind. Once Tiara was sure they were, she mouthed to Silver Spoon, "Close one."

Snails beamed happily as he waited outside of the Boutique. Everything seemed to be going well for a change. There had been a scary moment inside when Miss Rarity had almost mentioned the upcoming dance lessons, but luckily she'd caught the warning head shakes he and Snips had given and changed what she had been about to say without either of the fillies catching on. He'd been measured for a new suit and Rarity, Diamond Tiara, and Silver Spoon had handled all the color and fabric choices while he just agreed with whatever they said.

Now, he didn't much like the idea that Diamond Tiara or rather, her father, was paying for his suit. No, that didn't sit well with him at all. But the new suit would be more expensive than any set of clothing he'd ever owned. He doubted his parents would be willing to pay that much for a set of clothing and he knew he could not. From a practical standpoint, there really wasn't much need for clothing in an ordinary pony's life, after all. He wondered for a minute what had led to ponies first wearing clothing, but abandoned that line of thinking as Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon exited the shop.

"Well, that wasn't so bad, was it?" asked Diamond Tiara. "And I think the cloths should look fabulous when completed. Miss Rarity really does make the best designs in town." Snails nodded as if he knew this to be the absolute truth, although really, he didn't have the slightest clue. But if that's what Diamond Tiara thought, it didn't cost him anything to agree and so he did.

"I'm looking forward to seeing mine, for sure. I think it'll make me look gorgeous," said Silver Spoon. Snails noted that her mood seemed to have improved a lot. Once she'd had entered the store and gotten to the business of picking styles and fabrics, the sourness and irritability she had been displaying had faded away. He noted that for future use, since there would no doubt be times when Tiara was irritable and having a list of ways to snap her out of it would be handy.

Maybe he could pay for some future trip. That would be one way to pay her back. He would have to save his allowance, no more spending it on candy and toys. Still, it would be worth it. For now though, the best he could do would be to express what he felt. Normally, he found time in a clothing store pretty boring. Doubly so if he was there waiting while others were picking out things and he himself left on his own, like when he went shopping with his mother. But today hadn't been that boring. He himself had done very little. He had stood where and how he was told to stand while Rarity measured him. He'd agreed from time to time when someone asked him a question they wanted an agreeable answer to. And that should have left him very bored. Must like Snips had been, who had yawned for the first and not last time within five minutes of entering the store. But, no, for some reason, just seeing the pleasure Diamond Tiara got from picking things out made the experience almost enjoyable to him.

But now, with the shopping done, it was time for parting. The fillies would go their way and he and Snips would go theirs. So now was his chance to put those feelings into words, to expose his heart and perhaps reach hers, that with her, even the most mundane and boring activities became interesting. He paused, trying to formulate the words, the sentences, that would bring across the depths of what he was feeling. The proper words though failed to come, even as the two fillies started to leave. And so he blurted out the best he could come up with to their retreating backs. "Hey, Diamond Tiara," he called out, and once she looked back towards him, it was his moment, to turn his brain loose and let it do its best. "Thanks."

She nodded, then turned and continued on her way with Silver Spoon. He silently cursed his inability to think quickly like others, to formulate what he felt into sentences.

"Oh, and Snails?" Diamond Tiara called back over her shoulder, "If, on Monday, you were to meet me on the way to school the walk the last couple of blocks, I'll allow it." He felt his face break into a wide grin, as she started walking away again, only to stop and call over her shoulder once more. "Just the last couple though."

Snips nudged him and grinned and he grinned back, feeling elated. It was starting to work. Now to head his home and start reading the book. Between that and the dance lessons, he was going to make this work.

As Diamond Tiara rounded the corner, she let out a sigh. "Well, that wasn't as bad as it could have been. The hard part comes on Monday though, making those blank flanks believe that I'm actually looking forward to this." She walked silently for a bit, feeling a bit morose, before making a conscious decision to not worry about that for now. "Let's talk about happier things," she said. "Got your eye on anyone for the dance?"

Chapter 5

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Monday mornings were usually one of Snails's least favorite times of the week, for it meant five days of school before the glorious freedom of the weekend. This one though, he did not particularly mind. Any morning meant one day closer to the day of the dance. Just five days away now, this Saturday, and everything seemed to be falling into place. Hopefully this week would be as productive as the previous week had been.

Every day after school, he and Snails had met up with Sweetie Belle at her sister's shop for dance lessons. The first few days it had been as if he had been born with four left hooves. Nor had Sweetie Belle or Snips been much better. It had seemed that they all were hopeless. He had thought a few times that Rarity would throw up her hooves and scream in frustration. Somehow, though, she had always managed to take a deep breath, then several more, and continue on..

But by Thursday, something seemed to click in his mind. The basic dance steps had become more familiar, as if his legs knew what was expected of them and what their partner was doing. He was not great yet, not by any stretch of the imagination, but at least he could go more than three steps without winding up a tangled mess on the floor. With this week to continue the training, he hoped he could be even better than that, maybe even learn some fancy moves.

Snips, on the other hoof, had decided that dancing was not for him and decided to just provide moral support. He had stated that his legs were just too short to reach the floor properly for this fancy dancing. Snails figured there was a bit of truth to that. Snips did not let many things get to him, but his height, or rather the lack there of, was one of those things. But mostly, Snails figured his friend had moved to the sidelines to insure that Snails had the opportunity to learn as much as possible. He was lucky to have such a good friend.

The library trip was also paying off. The Polished Gentlepony's Guide to All Things was not exactly the most interesting reading, but he and Snips had been working their way through it, skimming it mostly to find sections that seemed relevant, then reading those parts with greater interest. It had even given him the idea of having a gift to present to Diamond Tiara on the night of the dance..

He and Snips had spent a day trying to decide what the perfect gift would be before he had figured it out. He had to ask his parents for an advance on his allowance, and when that wasn't enough, for some money for the dance, telling them it was for some fancy cloths to wear. A lie, something he did not like doing, but he told himself it was sort of the truth, that he was using the money to get a gift in part to pay back Tiara for purchasing the suit. The item would be ready on Saturday morning, the vendor had promised, just in time for the dance.

Snails started to grin as he rounded a corner and met up with Snips. They chatted about their activities of the weekend, which they had spent building a fort near their favorite lake, a fort of sticks and mud. And then they had turned their imaginations loose and defended the fort against all sorts of enemies, from Griffin pirates to Nightmare Moon cultists. It had been a fun weekend.

Such chat occupied his mind until they had arrived at the corner where they would wait for Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon, before walking the rest of the way to school, just like they had last week, just like they would this week. And with every such escort this week, one day closer to the dance. His mind shifted into auto-reply mode to what Snips was talking about, just repeating bits of what his friend said from time to time, while he imagined himself at the dance; the dance at which he would surprise Diamond Tiara with his gift and an unexpected prowess on the dance floor.

A few blocks away, Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon were heading toward the same corner and, like Snails, Diamond Tiara was thinking of the past week. Since she had followed her friend's advice about acting as if she had nothing to be ashamed of, things had mostly returned to their proper order. There was still some teasing about who she was taking to the dance, but most of it had died down when she had held her head up high and refused to let it bother her. Now she just one more week of this to suffer through, including the dance. And then her life could return to normal. No more Snails.

Although, strangely enough, she was finding she did not mind him that much. He tended to be agreeable with whatever she said, tried his best to be helpful, and had been at the appointed place each school day morning, waiting, and would, undoubtedly be there today.

But none of that changed the other facts about him though. He was beneath her, of low standing, and would never amount to much. Not to mention not much to look at. The night of the dance would be horrible. Though that might be beneficial, provide a good reason for her to end the non-existent relationship. Then a quick little 'I don't know what I was thinking' to her friends and all would be back to normal.

But first, this upcoming week to get through. Another week of faking interest in Snails. And, on top of that, she needed to help Silver Spoon. The colt her friend had been hoping would ask her had asked somepony else and so she was still without a date for the dance. Silver Spoon would need to act quickly before all the good choices were gone and she would have to go solo. Well, not solo, as the grey pony would be a welcome distraction from Snails, no doubt. But there was an image to maintain and it would not do for her friend to have a gorgeous new dress but no date of her own.

Tiara rounded the corner and there, as expected, were Snips and Snails. She stopped and went through the usual pleasantries, faking greater interest than she really felt, before the four of them continued on their way, walking the last couple of blocks to school, while discussing what their weekend activities.

Diamond Tiara shouldered the classroom door aside, took a step into the classroom, and stopped in surprise. Miss Cheerilee was there, but there were two other ponies as well. One she knew, Miss Sparkle. The other was new, and he was the reason for her surprise. A unicorn colt, one she had not seen before. His coat was solid white, while his mane and tail were two tones of blue, with dark green eyes. He did not have the gangling look of the colts in her class. Quite cute, as long as... yes, he had a cutie mark, a golden shield emblazoned with a red heart.

She pondered the unfairness of the universe. Of late, it had seemed out to get her. And yet, for another, what they needed might just fall right into their saddlebags. She squashed that line of thought quickly though. This was not just for some other pony. This was for Silver Spoon. She would have preferred the universe apologize directly to her, but it offering up the perfect solution to her friend's quandary instead, that was acceptable.

She cast a questioning glance at Silver Spoon. Her friend met her eyes and her approving smile was answer enough. They would have to act quickly though, before anypony else could scoop him up. To let the universe's apology slip through their hooves would be criminal.

"Good morning, Miss Cheerilee," both fillies called out.

"Oh, hello, girls, Snips, Snails," replied Cheerilee. "This is Heart Throb. He's going to be joining to join us for a while. Would you mind helping him get situated while I finish talking to Miss Sparkle here?" The young ponies nodded.

"Hi, Heart Throb. I'm Diamond Tiara. Snips. Snails. And this is Silver Spoon," said Diamond Tiara, indicating each pony in turn with her hoof.

"You're new in town, right? I don't think I've seen you before. Where are you from?" asked Silver Spoon.

"I just got here last night from Canterlot. My dad is an officer in the Royal Guard there," said Heart Throb, pride evident in voice.

"Really? I wish I lived in Canterlot, it'd be so much classier than living here." Silver Spoon smiled dreamily. "But if he's a guard there, what are you doing here?" she queried.

"I'm here to get special training. My dad pulled in some big favors and got me some tutoring with Princess Celestia's prized pupil, Miss Twilight Sparkle. Can you believe that? Her brother was the Captain of the Guard and the Shield Major and now she's going to be teaching me."

"Teaching you what?" asked Snails.

"Defensive magics. That's my thing." He proudly showed off his cutie mark. "Every year, there's a special contest in Canterlot for young ponies, the Junior Training Corps Championships. The winner qualifies to enter the Royal Military Academy. I am going to join the guard like my father and someday be the most powerful caster of defensive magics in the land, the Shield Major."

He stood there, head held high, back straight, reminiscent of the Princess's guards on their visits to Ponyville. The thought that he would look lovely dancing with her entered her mind for a second, but she shoved the thought away. Her fate for the dance was sealed. This was for Silver Spoon and she would be happy for her best friend. Provided everything went well. She glanced at the clock to check the time, as the door opened to allow another group of students into the classroom.

"Class is almost going to begin. You should sit here, next to Silver Spoon," Diamond Tiara said. "She can help you if you have any questions and introduce you to the rest of the class."

When Heart Throb wasn't looking, she threw a quick wink at her friend before settling into one of the desks in the front row.

At recess, the school kids all gathered around Heart Throb, curious to learn more about him. When they learned what he was here for, a pale yellow pegasus with a purple mane badgered him for a demonstration. Diamond Tiara glared at the pegasus. Was it merely just friendly interest or was Alula contemplating something more? Did she have a date yet? She tried to recall, but could not. Best to head this off at the pass.

"I'm sure he doesn't want to spend time performing tricks for people, Alula," Diamond Tiara said.

Heart Throb, however, contradicted her. "Nah, I'm happy to show what I can do. See that hoofball over there? I'm going to put a protective shield around it."

His horn started to glow red and his face scrunched up as he concentrated harder. His horn glowed brighter and a translucent erubescent globe appeared around the ball. The schoolkids all oohed.

"Now, someone try to kick it," he challenged.

"Ooh, me, me!" exclaimed Snips. Without even waiting for a response, he rushed to ball and bucked it as hard as he could. The effect of the kick was immediate. The globe stayed right where it was and Snips wound up face first in the grass. Diamond Tiara giggled at the sight.

"No offense, pipsqueak, but how about someone a little bit...more full grown?" Hearth Throb asked.

"I'll do it," Snails said, as he stepped forward. He slowly walked around the ball, examining the surrounding globe from all sides. Eventually, he settled on a spot, carefully placing his forelegs. He gave a quick practice kick with one hind leg and nodded with satisfaction. The watching crowd went silent. Snails breathed deeply, exhaled slowly, and took another breath.

The audience trembled, anticipation building, and just as the anticipation was about to turn to impatience, Snails unleashed. His hooves collided with the sphere with a thump. The sphere trembled a bit, but held. Snails returned his rear hooves to the ground, and quickly sat down, rubbing his legs.

"Ouch," he said.

Diamond Tiara hoped he was not hurt. She shook her head, wondering where that thought had come from. No, she hoped he was hurt, hurt enough that he would not be able to attend the dance. Unfortunately, that did not seem to be the case, as Snails shook his rear legs a bit, then got gingerly back on all fours.

Once it was evident that Snails was alright, the audience gathered around Heart Throb, who basked under their attention until the bell rang, signaling the end of recess. As ponies started to file back toward the classroom, Diamond Tiara frowned at the way Alula was eyeing Heart Throb. Nudging Silver Spoon with her shoulder, Tiara nodded her head towards Heart Throb. Taking the hint, Silver Spoon closed on the white unicorn.

"That was very impressive," she said.

"Yeah, it is pretty cool, huh?"

"Very. So, um, this Saturday, there's this dance. Since you're new in town and probably don't know anypony, well, I figured maybe you'd like to go with me?" Silver Spoon asked.

"Yeah, sure, why not? It could be fun," said Heart Throb.

The next day, Sweetie Belle sat eating her lunch, softly humming a song to herself. Scootaloo and Apple Bloom were nearby, doodling on some paper, coming up with some sort of plan. Sweetie though wasn't really paying attention. Instead, her attention was focused on her daisy sandwich and what was happening on the grass field around her. A group of foals playing jump rope. Some others were playing jacks. And another group was playing a ball game, split into two teams and kicking a ball around. It was this group that primarily held Sweetie's interest.

It was not that sports held a particular fascination to Sweetie Belle. The opposite, in fact. She had tried her hoof at a few, well, more than a few since she had begun crusading, but it was not really her thing. But she had to admit to herself, there was a certain relaxing aspect to the ball and players moving back and forth. There were a few of her classmates in the game as well, and it was them she spent most of her time watching.

Something nudged her shoulder, but she ignored it as one of the colts from her class almost scored. A second nudge, harder than the first, caused her to lose her balance. Her forelegs flailed, sending her half-eaten sandwich flying. She lunged, hooves stretched, eyes closed. She cautiously opened her eyes, breathing a sigh of relief to see her sandwich safely caught.

With a glare, Sweetie turned on the source of the nudge. "What?" she demand.

"So what do you think?" asked Scootaloo.

"About what?"

"The plan we've just been spending all of lunch working on, of course," Apple Bloom said.

"Oh, um..." Sweetie Belle glanced quickly over the paper colorfully marked with crayons. The squiggly writing was not easy to read. She tried again, but still could not make much sense of it. Scootaloo writing, so no doubt it would be a plan for something adventurous. "I, um, really like this part." She pointed in the middle of glob of writing.

"But that's crossed out," Scootaloo said, her brow furrowed. "Why would you like that part?"

"Yup, what you replaced it with is much better," Sweetie Belle said lamely, just as the school bell rang. Rarely had she been so happy to have lunch end.

"Oh, look at the time. Lunch is over.. Let's get back to class." Sweetie Belle said as she scooped up her things and raced off, leaving a perplexed Scootaloo and giggling Apple Bloom behind.

Once back inside, the time passed pretty quickly. Some of the subjects covered were interesting. For these, Sweetie Belle diligently scrawled notes. For the others, her notes were a lot less complete, one could almost call them lacking, as she fought her boredom by drawing doodles in her notebook. And so the afternoon passed until at last Miss Cheerilee signaled the end of the school day.

"Okay, that is it for today. Remember to study for the test on the paleopony period on Wednesday. And don't forget to ask your parents to fill out the volunteer forms for the dance. There's still a few slots we need to fill," Miss Cheerilee reminded the class. "Class dismissed."

The class exploded into action as the foals stuffed items into their packs and desks, started to chat with friends, and headed toward the door. Most of the class was already gone by the time Sweetie had finished carefully putting away her items, each in their proper place. She knew her friends would be waiting for her outside. And sure enough, they were, just outside the door, as were two colts from her class.

"Oh, hey, guys," said Sweetie Belle. "You coming for dance lessons tonight, Snails?"


"You guys are still doing that fancy dancing stuff?" Scootaloo asked.

"Yes, Snails is getting pretty good."

"I don't fall over nearly as much," Snails added, beaming with pride. Snips added his own affirmation of this with a nod.

Sweetie Belle giggled. "I'll see you tonight then. Oh, want to study together for the test tomorrow after school?"

Snips responded, "Sure, that would be great!"

Sweetie opened her mouth to respond, only to find herself shoved rudely from behind.

"Out of my way. Ponies are walking here," said Diamond Tiara, giggling as Sweetie Belle fell down. "Coming, Snails?"

Snails looked apologetically at Sweetie, then he and Snips dashed after Tiara. Sweetie could just hear him chiding Tiara about her behavior. Tiara's response was audible as well, a laugh.

"Gah, I hate her so much," said Scootaloo, as she and Apple Bloom helped Sweetie back up. "One of these days, she's going to go too far and I'm going to kick her right to the moon."

Snips refilled his glass with punch as he watched the dance practice with a satisfied smile. He had known Snails could pull it off. He had never doubted it, well, other than most of the first few days of dance lessons, but that did not really count. Now, as he watched Snails and Sweetie glide across the floor, he believed what he had always known, that his best friend would pull this off. They moved with a grace and ease he would have had trouble imagining even a week before.

Sure, Miss Rarity was still pointing out all sorts of flaws in their technique, but what she was pointing out were things Snips doubted most ponies would even notice. He certainly did not. Rarity did though. She had an eye for lack of perfection. But from watching her, Snips could tell even she was happy with the level of progress. Whereas before there were many sighs, scrunched eyes, and calming breaths before speaking, with every passing lesson, there were more nods, some compliments, and even the occasional smile. Snails would be ready. He could pull this off, as long as nothing went horribly wrong.

As the song finished and the two dancing foals coasted to a stop, Rarity spoke up. "Okay, that is all I have time for tonight. I really need to finish off a few more things that customers are coming to pick up tomorrow, as well as your suit, Snails, so you can take it home tonight. But you and Sweetie can keep practicing for a bit longer, if you want."

Snips watched Rarity leave the room, only to have her return half a minute later, her horn glowing as she dropped off a stack of dress covers on a table.

"Sweetie, would you be a dear and put the dresses on that rack in dress covers and move them to the rack in the hall?" Rarity asked as she turned around and exited the room without waiting for an answer.

"Okay, sis," Sweetie called after her sister.

Rarity ducked her head back into the room. "Oh, and please, please, puh-lease be careful with that punch." And she was gone again.

Snips smiled. Over the last few weeks, he had seen similar scenes with Rarity over and over again. When it came to her work, she worried endlessly about things that would never happen. Or at least, if they did happen, were not nearly as bad as she made them out to be. Still, she was kind enough to give these dance lessons despite her worries. It made Snips almost wish he had an older sister of his own. Or maybe an older brother. Yeah, that would probably be more awesome.

He shook the thought from his head and smiled, taking another drink of punch. Unless his parents had neglected to tell him he had an older sibling, it would be rather unlikely he would end up with one. So there was little point imagining that when there were other things he could be imagining. He could be an officer in the Royal Guard, leading a successful charge. Or a successful stage magician, the envy of all others. Or, as he glanced at his friend practicing with Sweetie, perhaps a wealthy businessman, dancing at the Grand Galloping Gala.

Without really intending to, Snips's body turned the daydream into action. He spun around, trying to match the moves Snails and Sweetie were doing out in the open area. He glided left, then spun, only to feel his balance going as he collided with a dress rack. With all the grace of a really ungraceful thing, he recovered his footing. He really was not cut out for dancing, he decided, and took another sip from his glass. Or rather, tried to, as he discovered the previously half full glass was now empty.

A quick scan of the floor revealed that the missing punch was not on the floor. Nor had he spilled it on himself. Which left... the dress rack. Slowly, he turned toward the dress, to have his fears confirmed. The first dress on the rack, a shining white creation just a minute ago, was now marred with a large maroon stain.

Dread filled Snips. If Rarity found out he had spilled the punch on the dress, after she had specifically warned them not to, it would not be good. She would probably kick them out. She might cancel the dance lesson tomorrow. Or even worse, she might decide to not finish Snails's suit. That would ruin Saturday. That could not be allowed to happen.

He needed a place to hide the dress. He urged his brain to work, to identify a good spot to hide the dress, maybe something to cover... cover, yes, that was the answer. He quickly scooped up the dress, folded it double to cover the stain, and carried it over to the table with the dress covers. The perfect place to keep the dress out of sight.

"You're being careful with that, right, Snips?" Sweetie called out.

Snips froze for a second, as if caught in a cockatrice's stare, worried that had been caught out. But no, Sweetie just thought he was putting away the dresses, doing the task her sister had asked of her. "Um... yes, of course."

"Okay, thanks for taking care of that for me."

"Yup, that's me. All helpful like that," Snips replied. He breathed a soft sigh of relief as Sweetie Belle returned to dancing. This little incident would not ruin Snails's big day.

"You know, I always had this image for how my first big dance would be. I'd have a gorgeous dress, a handsome date, and I'd be the belle of the ball. It'd be perfect. But, hey, at least I got the dress, right? One out of three is better than nothing, I guess," Diamond Tiara said.

"Yeah, you are going to look absolutely gorgeous in that dress. You'll be the second best looking one there for sure!" Silver Spoon said, drawing a glare from Diamond Tiara.

"Okay, okay, tied for best looking," she added with a laugh, drawing a giggle from Tiara, before Tiara once again turned somber.

"You're so lucky, you know, going with Heart Throb. Your night is going to be perfect, everything I had dreamed of, while mine..."

"Oh, come now, yours probably won't be that bad."

"I know it will be that bad. I had so wanted my first dance to be special." Tiara shouldered Silver Spoon to interrupt her sudden giggle. "Good special, you know what I meant. And instead of being the filly everyone else there is jealous of, I'm going to be spending the entire night hoping not to be noticed.

"Promise me, something, Sil. Promise me your night will be everything mine won't be. That your night will be perfect. If I cannot be happy for me, I can at least be happy for you."

"I promise, Tia. I'll do my best."

Diamond Tiara wrapped her forelegs around Silver Spoon's neck. "Thanks."

The two fillies continued the last bit of distance to the boutique in silence.

Today was the day Rarity had promised their dresses would be ready. A bit later than the fillies would have liked, what with tomorrow being the dance, but Miss Rarity had needed to special order in some fabric for their dresses. Nothing to be done about it, plus one did one's best to not antagonize what rare bit of style there was to be found in Ponyville.

Rarity was busy serving another customer, a stallion. Diamond Tiara looked him over with a critical eye. His mane had been cut recently, probably earlier today. His hoofs were not well trimmed, indicating his livelihood most likely involved physical labor. His build seemed to support that. With him solidly categorized as somepony not worth knowing, she abandoned her inspection and looked around the shop for something else to occupy her time until Rarity was done helping him.

There was nothing new that she and Spoon had not seen on their last visit to the store and less items in stock overall. That made sense, Tiara figured, what with Rarity's time most likely having been occupied with lots of custom work for tomorrow's big day. Silver Spoon had apparently reached the same conclusion, for she was browsing through a selection of Rarity's spring line, a rack both of them had been thoroughly through. She made the decision to join her friend. It would help pass the time until Rarity finished helping the unimportant pony.

The two fillies made small talk, interrupted by occasional impatient glares over their shoulders at the stallion who was wasting their precious time. After their serious conversation outside, both were content to stick to light hearted subject matter, about such things as the latest follies of classmates and the merits of Rarity's designs versus the ones in the latest fashion magazines from Canterlot.

"Okay, girls, just a second while I get your dresses," Rarity said, as she quickly trotted off into a backroom.

"Finally," whispered Silver Spoon.

"Yeah, she kept us waiting for minutes," Diamond Tiara whispered back. "This dress will be the one good thing to come out of this. And I'm really looking forward to see you in yours, the colors you picked are going to go so perfectly with eyes."

Rarity reentered the room, floating two dress covers which she carefully hung on a stand. Opening the first bag, she brought out a stunning black and purple dress with a flourish. "And here is the first one. A perfect mix of colors, combining the latest styles from Canterlot with some timeless classics. It will be absolutely stunning on you."

Silver Spoon gasped and stamped her feet in approval. "It looks even better than I imagined it would. You truly do the best work!" Rarity practically glowed from the compliment.

"And now for your dress, Diamond. I think you'll be quite pleased. It came together quite nicely, and I think the white and yellow will look absolutely stunning on you." The dress floated out of the cover, in front of Rarity, for Diamond Tiara to admire. Tiara looked at what was the one thing about her day tomorrow that was supposed to go right and her jaw dropped.

Rarity continued on, as yet oblivious, "Why, every filly will be jealous of the two of you. Just look at--" Rarity stopped, noticing that the fillies' reaction was not what she expected. She spun the dress around and gasped in horror at the large red stain that covered the front of her magnificent creation.

"Oh my. No no no. Of all the... This is not happening. I spent hours, hours getting the stitching just right..." Rarity's legs pulled together and, for a second, Diamond Tiara thought Rarity might just faint. Instead, she stood silently for a second, her eyes shifting from side to side as her mind raced.

"Well, I'm sure it'll come right out with some water" Rarity gave a laugh that was half an attempt to ease the worry of her customers and half insanity. "Just give me a sec."

A bucket and rag floated over and the seamstress began scrubbing at the stain. At first, carefully, but with increasing anxiety as the stain refused to come out. She muttered to herself, quietly at first, but the volume and franticness that increased as the stain resisted her best efforts. Finally, she gave up.

"I'm sorry, Diamond Tiara. I don't suppose you want this dress in red? No, I thought not. I'll make this up to you somehow. Of all the worst possible things... I don't even know how this happened. I don't even know what this..." Her brow furrowed and she sniffed the stained area.

"Wildberry punch? Now when could that... SWEETIE BELLE!"

"It's just not fair," Sweetie Belle complained. "It's not my fault punch got spilled on Tiara's dress."

"So that's why she's making you serve punch at the dance, all night?" Scootaloo asked.

"Yup, and now I won't be able to have any fun dancing with you girls," Sweetie pouted.

"Well, at least you'll still be able to spend all night staring at Snails," Apple Bloom said.

"What's that supposed to mean?" Sweetie asked.

"Oh come on, you know you've got a crush on him. You've practically been as bad as my brother when we gave him that love poison."

"She has?" asked Scootaloo.

"I have?" came from Sweetie Belle a second behind.

"Ever since you started giving him those dance lessons," Apple Bloom replied.

"Nu-uh," denied the unicorn.

"Let's look at the facts, shall we? You've been watching him non-stop during lunch. And constantly humming or singing while doing so."

"I wasn't watching him, there were lots of our classmates in those games. And you know I often sing little songs, Apple Bloom."

"Yeah, but the songs? They've been love songs, Sweetie."

"Not true, I sing all sorts of stuff," the white filly adamantly denied.

"Um, actually, she's right, Sweetie." Scootaloo looked apologetically at her friend. She shrugged her shoulders at her friend's look of betrayal.. "Sorry, but you have been singing those sappy songs more of late. I've almost asked you to stop a dozen times. You know I love your singing, but... well, too much sappy stuff."

"And you've blown us off to study with Snails," said Bloom, continuing with her list.

"I invited you guys to study with us as well. We're all in the same class. It just makes sense to study together."

"Lastly, there's this." Apple Bloom continued, ignoring Belle's latest denial. She reached into Sweetie's school bag and pulled out Sweetie's notebook, then tossed it over to her. "Open it, look at what you've been sketching."

Sweetie Belle reached hesitantly for the notebook. Flipping through the more recent parts, her eyes went wide, unblinking, as she looked at large quantity of poorly drawn doodles of Snails she'd drawn in the more recent weeks.

"Sweetie Belle, you okay? Are you okay?" Scootaloo asked.

Sweetie Belle just stood there, even when Scootaloo waved her hoof in front of the unicorn's face. The gears of Sweetie Belle's mind whirred frantically as she looked at her activities of the last week in a different light and felt things clicking into place.

"Oh horse apples."

Chapter 6

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"So have you decided what dress you're wearing tonight?" Silver Spoon asked.

"The one from Hearth's Warming Eve, I think," Diamond Tiara muttered.

Tiara had been a bit of a wet blanket all day. Silver Spoon hoped Tiara would snap out of it though. Her friend was not much fun when she was in one of these moods. It was to be expected though. Her friend could not be looking forward to tonight. Talking about cloths often cheered her up though, so maybe it would this time as well.

Silver Spoon racked her brain trying to recall the dress Tiara was talking about. Images whirled past, but none were quite right. Silver Spoon thought maybe the purple number with the stripes, but then recalled that she had borrowed that one a month ago and it was still in her closet, so she ruled that out. Finally, she just guessed. "That the pink and purple one with the white polka dots?"

"The one from my cute-ceañera? Like, eeew. I gave that one away at the school's Hearths Warming Eve's charity drive last year. I wanted to burn it but daddy wouldn't let me. Don't ever want to see it again. Probably wouldn't fit anymore anyway," Tiara sighed. "No, the purple one, with the silver trim."

The image of the dress snapped into Silver Spoon's mind. "Oh, that one. I like that one. Not as much as the new one though. I still cannot believe the tree sap trio would stoop so low as to ruin your dress."

"OMC! I know, right. It just wasn't enough for them to have won the bet. Making me go with Snails just wasn't enough for them," Tiara snarled.

Mentally, Silver Spoon kicked herself for bringing up the dress. Mentioning unhappy things, what a sure-fire way to cheer somepony up. Cloths were not working. She would need to change tack. When in doubt, make fun of the trio. "Well, for them, it probably would not be. It would almost be a step up. I bet they don't even have any dates for tonight."

Silver Spoon's mind wandered away from her friend's mood to her own date for tonight. She had everything all planned out. Dinner at the French place, followed by the dance. She imagined Heart Throb leading her across the dance floor, then a twirl, her dress spinning, shimmering in the light. At some point, a walk through the park, then some ice cream, before more dancing. All of it with Heart Throb, handsome in a dress uniform, at her side. It would be perfect. And not just because she had promised Tiara it would be.

"I heard from Twist that Sweetie Belle has to work at the punch table all night for ruining my dress. Serves her right." Tiara scowled, anger simmering just below the surface. Anger, an improvement over depression. Silver Spoon figured she could work with that.

"As long as she serves us right. We'd best be careful though, wouldn't want her to ruin another dress. She'd probably find a way to accidentally spill the entire punch bowl on us." Silver Spoon giggled, as a thought occurred to her. "They should totally, like, put up a warning sign nearby, to warn everyone."

"They should just hang signs on all three. 'Warning: mobile disaster zone. Keep locked up.'" An image formed in Silver Spoon's mind, of the trio wearing large, very large, yellow triangular signs on their backs, complete with a bell around their neck, to warn everyone of their approach. She started to laugh. Tiara glared at her a second, before the ridiculousness of the idea caused her to join in.

Once both fillies finished laughing, Tiara continued, serious once more. "I can tell you one thing though, Sil. They went too far. You don't mess with somepony's stuff. First our flowers, now my dress. So not cool."

Silver Spoon nodded. "They're probably, like, planning something even as we speak, you know."

"I wouldn't doubt it. And whatever it is, after this is over, we'll so totally make them pay."

Silver Spoon smiled. Her friend, the strong and determined filly, was back. And they would make the Crusaders pay.

"We have to do something," Scootaloo said yet again.

"No, we don't," Apple Bloom replied, for the umpteenth time.

"Yes, we do," Scootaloo said. She continued quickly, before Apple Bloom could respond. "Look, this is all my fault. If I hadn't suggested Diamond Tiara had to ask Snails to the dance, then Snails would be free to go with Sweetie Belle."

"Maybe, but we all agreed it was a good idea. And without that, Snails wouldn't have asked for dance lessons and Sweetie wouldn't have fallen for him."

Scootaloo gave a curt nod, as if that proved her case. "You see? All my fault."

Apple Bloom rolled her eyes at her friend. "Look, we both know Tiara is only going to the dance with him because of the bet. After the dance, she'll move on and problem solved."

"But what if she falls for him as well? What if he makes it all work?" Scootaloo pleaded.

"Oh come on. This is Tiara we're talking about. That's about as likely as..." Apple Bloom almost said chocolate rain, but stopped herself in time. "As crystal ponies bein' real," she finished.

"But if it does happen? And don't just tell me it won't. If it does, then what?"

Apple Bloom started to say something, then stopped. She thought of something else, started to say it instead, but again stopped.

"I thought so," Scootaloo said. "Look, you know I'm not one for all this sappy stuff. But if Snails does manage to win over the ice queen's heart and break Sweetie's in the process, I could never forgive myself. So I'm going to do something, with or without your help. Now the only question is this: are you going to help me or not?"

Apple Bloom sighed. She swore Scootaloo could be as stubborn as Applejack at times. "Fine. But if this doesn't work out, Ah'm so going to tell you Ah told you so."

"Looking good, buddy," Snips said, nodding with approval. "You're going to impress all the gals, for sure."

"Only want to impress one," Snails replied. Still, he could not help but check himself out in the mirror, fidgeted nervously, trying to look at various angles.

"You have never looked better. Tiara cannot help but be impressed. Just wish I could be there to see you shine."

Snails started to check himself out again, then he shrugged. There was not much point. He would be nervous until he picked up Diamond Tiara. Probably until the dance started. Okay, to be honest with himself, probably until it was over. But he was as prepared as he could be.

He just wished Snips could be there. That was not possible, however. Snips's grandparents were celebrating their thirtieth wedding anniversary tonight and no amount of pleading could get him out of it. Not that he wanted Snips at his side all night, definitely not. No, just that knowing that Snips would be nearby, ready to swoop in if he needed help, would make a nice safety net. It would ease his worries that something might go wrong. He looked at the mirror again, then reached up to adjust his bow tie, wondering yet again if he should have asked for a regular tie instead.

"Relax. Miss Rarity sure knows what she's doing. If she says bow ties are in this year, it is so. And don't forget our favorite secret agents wear bow ties. How much more do you need to know, secret agent man? Take my word for it, bow ties are cool."

Snails laughed, feeling some of the nervous tension drain from him. Once again, his thoughts turned to how lucky he was to have a friend like Snips. Turning, he gave Snips a spontaneous hug.

"Whoa there, Snails. Save it for the ladies!"

Snails laughed again. His mind struggled to formulate words to adequately express his gratitude to Snips. As usual, it failed to come up with anything worthy of the feelings he felt. But he knew that Snips would understand all the same. "Thanks. Thanks for everything."

Snips blushed, turning away from the praise. "Nothing more than what you'd do for me. Now, you'd best get going. And I need to get home."

Snails turned to go, only to be stopped as Snips asked, "Aren't you forgetting something?"

Puzzled, Snails tried to figure out what Snips meant. He quickly checked himself over, everything still seemed correct. He looked over at Snips, who tilted his head toward a small package wrapped in silver foil paper, embellished with a pink bow.

Snails could hardly believe he had almost forgotten that. Quickly, he slid it into a pocket. "Thanks again."

Downstairs, Snails's mom insisted on having one of those motherly scenes. Pictures had to be taken, some punch drunk and a snack eaten, and comments made about how her little boy was all grown up. The type of thing one tolerated with a mixture of equal parts of love and embarrassment. The type of thing that one's friends either ribbed you about later or else made an excuse to leave the area. Usually both. Snips did the latter, and would no doubt do the former later.

Snails's father was more gruff than his mom, but Snails could tell he approved as well. The bits his dad had slipped Snails when he thought mom was not looking were proof of that. She noticed, of course. She always noticed. But, in this case, she pretended not to, and Snails's love of his parents swelled in response. It was surprising how often it was the little things, rather than the big ones, that cemented the place of somepony in one's heart. For all that his life was not perfect, he at least had this, a good family. And, truth be told, he would not trade that away for anything.

He managed to extricate himself from his parents' grasp, setting out toward Diamond Tiara's house. That being his destination, it was only natural his thoughts were of her, of why he liked her. Others might think it was the big things: her popularity, how cute she was, how wealthy her family was. But is was the little things about her that so appealed to him. Tiara's confidence when she was sure of herself, and the way she faked the same confidence when she was not. Her drive to succeed. The loyalty between her and Silver Spoon, and the way the two supported each other. The way she adored her father, on those rare occasions he saw them together. These were the things that made him smile when he thought of her.

It kept his mind occupied as the houses changed from the rundown buildings of his neighborhood to better maintained ones and finally to the top of the hill on which sat the houses of Ponyville's richest citizens. None of those were bigger than Mr. Rich's. Snails paused to collect himself, examining the house. A low, grey stone wall surrounded the place. An open iron gate, monogrammed with the letter 'R', offered entrance to the estate.

Tentatively, Snails stepped past the gate, onto the tiled path that led to the house. The path was lined with bushes, each trimmed to look like an animal. A few Snails knew by name, while others he knew of from biology class, although their names eluded him. A few though he had never seen before and he was not altogether sure they even existed. By each of these, he paused, examining them, trying to remember every detail to describe to Snips, before moving closer to the house.

The house now loomed over Snails, looking larger than the entire block he lived on. A splendid white building, with marble pillars by the front door. Three stories tall, Snails saw, looking up at the windows. Was one of those Tiara's room?. Snails felt a moment of doubt. What was he thinking, that this could actually work? She was way above him. She lived here, in this mansion, while he lived down below. His body took a step backwards, then another. He almost turned and fled, and would have, if not for a thought of Snips. Snips would be disappointed if he did not see this through. Besides, a pony was a pony, no matter what size building they lived in. Even one as large as this.

Gathering his nerves, he strode up to the front door and knocked. Almost immediately, the door opened to reveal an aging grey stallion.

"Well, hello there, young master. You must be Miss Tiara's date," the stallion said.

Spinning around, Snails stood ready to face down whoever this master the stallion was referring to was. No way anypony was going to steal his date. He saw nopony though, just an empty walkway. Sheepishly, he turned back to find the older pony standing there amused.

"Sorry," Snails offered. "Not used to be talked to like that."

"It goes with the job. With this line of work, social courtesies are very important. And speaking of which, won't you please come in?" The stallion stepped aside to clear the entryway.

"Thanks," Snails said, as he wiped his hooves on the doormat and entered the house. "I'm Snails."

"Pleased to meet you, Snails. I'm Praiseworthy, the butler." Praiseworthy stated this as if having a butler was something normal, something every family had. "The young miss said she would be down momentarily, so you might want to make yourself comfortable." Praiseworthy gestured to a nearby couch.

When Snails hesitated, he added, "She could take a while." When he followed that up with a conspiratorial wink, Snails decided he liked the old stallion. There was an earthiness to him that helped to offset the house. At least what of the house he could see.

Framed paintings hung the wall. A coat rack by the door. Chairs on one side of this entry room, with a mirror between them. The couch on the other. The whole place felt formal, more like a museum than a home. That sort of made sense, he figured. This whole big house for just Tiara and her father. And any servants, of course, but their stuff would most likely be limited to whatever room was theirs. Hard to make a place homely when there was so much space. Something Snails had never considered before, the idea that having more could mean having less.

Praiseworthy spoke up. "Now, Snails, that is an interesting name for a pony."

"Huh? Oh, yeah. They sorta call me that 'cause of my mark. I'm used to it though." Snails paused a couple of seconds before adding, "Also beats my real name."

Praiseworthy chuckled and admitted he knew what that was like, launching into a tale of his youth. And so the old and the young conversed, until at last Diamond Tiara appeared.

She was resplendent in her purple dress, offset with shades of lighter purple and pink, with silver trim. Purple stockings covered her legs, ending in dark purple shoes, with a single silver bracelet around the upper part of the left foreleg. Completing the effect was a band of purple cloth around her neck, patterned with silver. Snails shut his mouth, which had seemingly opened of its own will at the sight of Tiara. Tiara tilted her head slightly and smiled.

He watched as she appraised him. Her eyes squinted and she peered at his shoulder, before reaching out and brushing off something. Snails assumed it was something anyway, because brushing off nothing would not make much sense.

"It fits well," Tiara commented. "And no punch stains, that's a plus."

How had she known his mom had given him some punch before he came here? Best not to ask, he decided. "Yup, no punch stains."

"Ready to go?"

"Yes... Um, no," Snails replied. With Tiara's face veering toward a scowl, he quickly continued, "I got you this."

Reaching into this pocket, he got out his present and presented it to his date. His date. He liked the sound of that.

"Oh?" Tiara took the box and opened it, revealing a silver necklace with a pendant.

"It's a tiara. I had it made," Snails said proudly.

"I can see that. It is... nice."

Snails beamed. She had called it nice. She liked it. Things were going well.

Tiara held the box up to Praiseworthy. "If you would be so kind, Praise?"

"Of course, ma'am." His horn glowed with a silvery aura and the necklace lifted from the box, settling around Tiara's neck.

Diamond Tiara looked at her reflection in the mirror before nodding. "Come on. Let's get going. I don't want to be late. See you tonight, Praise." She gave the old stallion a quick hug.

Snails ponder why, if she did not want to be late, she had not been ready on time. He himself had made it a point to arrive early. A good thing, since he had not figured on the parental ambush. Even with that, he had arrived early, but all that time and more had been spent waiting on Tiara. He almost asked, but some inner voice suggested that asking would not be a good idea. Instead, he just nodded, gave a slight bow to Praiseworthy, and followed Tiara out the door.

Sweetie Belle looked around the dance again, searching for some sign of her friends. And, to be honest with herself, some sign of Snails. He still counted as a friend though, even if she was sweet on him, right? So she really was just looking for her friends. She saw a few of her classmates, but not the ones she was looking for.

As was tradition, the dance was held in the town's main square. The entire area had been cordoned off. The colorful nature and the large quantity of streamers used indicated that Pinkie Pie had been involved in setting up and decorating the area. Even the lamp posts, outfitted with extra lamps for this occasion, were outfitted with pink and white streamers.

Up on the stage, Vinyl Scratch had set up her gear on one side and was merrily cranking out some 'tunage', as she referred to it. A large banner emblazoned with "DJ Pon-3" hung over her head. The other side was set up for a quartet from Canterlot the mayor had arranged for after Rarity had insisted that the dance should have actual live music and not just a record-player player. Not that her sister had anything against the DJ, just that she felt that a proper Heart and Hooves Day dance had live music. The musicians were probably backstage, hiding from Scratch's sonic assault, until it was their time to go on.

Her own table, as well as other refreshment related tables, a photography booth, and a couple of vendors lined one side. Across the way, the other side had some tables as well, and someone had arranged for the ones along the outside edge to be separated from each other and anything outside the dance by cloth walls and ceiling, creating booths. Candles inside red glass jars on the tables added to the atmosphere.

So far, Sweetie had not been too busy. The night was still young. Ponies were still arriving, and the ones already here were not that thirsty yet. If someone did come over and wanted to chat for a bit, she gladly obliged them. Otherwise, she watched the entrance, the gap in the cordoned off area, hoping for a friendly face who might come over to relieve her boredom.

Unfortunately, it was not a friendly face that entered just then and spotted her, but Silver Spoon and her date. Sweetie Belle quickly looked away, switching over to watch Vinyl, hoping that Silver Spoon would not come over. Sweetie Belle was not sure how Vinyl could do it, being up there in front of all those people. Just the thought of everypony focusing on her was enough to make Sweetie shiver. But Vinyl not only did do it, she seemed to thrive on it. She wanted to be the center of all that attention.

"Why hello there, Sweetie Belle," Silver Spoon said. The way Silver Spoon pronounced her name made Sweetie wish that she was indeed up on stage, in front of everyone. It would probably be better than being trapped here with Silver Spoon.

"Hi." Sweetie pushed two cups of punch toward Silver Spoon and Heart Throb. Just take them and leave. No reason for them to stay here. She desperately looked over to the entrance for some sign of her friends.

Silver Spoon picked hers up and took a small sip, before setting it down again. "So, you volunteered for this, hoping to get a cutie mark in the service industry, maybe?"

In a panic, Sweetie quickly checked to see if her flank was still bare. Relief flooded through her when she saw it still was. Now that was a feeling she had imagined ever having. Not that she had anything against people who served others, just that, when she and her fellow Crusaders dreamed of their cutie marks, they were something more exciting. Better to be a blank flank for a while longer before giving up on those dreams.

She looked ahead to see Silver Spoon studying her reaction. She had probably already decided that Sweetie Belle was not doing this because she wanted to. With the scent of blood in the water, Silver Spoon would circle until she discovered what she wanted. Sweetie glanced at the entrance again, but no relief coming from there. Best to just get it over with. "My sister is making me do this."

Silver Spoon gave a cruel smile. "Well, If you do, like, get that cutie mark, you be sure to let me know. We might be looking for an extra maid this summer."

Heart Throb nudged his date impatiently. "Come on, Sil. This is boring. I'm not even thirsty. Let's go dance or something."

"Just a minute, I'm not done here yet. Done with my drink, I mean."

"Fine. I'm going. I'll be on the dance floor if you want to join me." Sweetie Belle watched as Heart Throb strode off.

"Boys. It always has to be about them. You know how it is, no?"

Sweetie Belle reflected on what she knew of boys. It was true that they liked to talk about themselves and their interests. She found that she did not really mind when Snails did that though. Something about his enthusiasm was infectious. But he also seemed interested in her, even if he did not appear to be interested-interested. She opened her mouth to disagree with Silver Spoon, only to have Spoon cut her off before she could even begin. "Oh, wait. You wouldn't. No date for you."

Sweetie Belle looked at her fore hooves as her head dropped. Her thoughts turned to Snails, no doubt on his way here with Diamond Tiara at his side. About to spend the night dancing with her, because of that stupid bet.

"Hey, Sweetie. How's it going?" Apple Bloom asked.

Sweetie Belle looked up in surprise to see both Apple Bloom and Scootaloo. They had arrived at last. She had missed their arrival in her moroseness. But now they were here and things would be alright.

"Oh hey, girls! Good now that you're here." She filled a pair of paper cups with punch and offered them to her friends. Sweetie Belle leaned over the table towards her friends and said as quietly as would still be audible over the noise, "I added extra sugar and flavoring when I made this. Nothing but the good stuff for my friends."

"Where's your dates? Wait, don't tell me. You two are an item now?" Silver Spoon asked Scootaloo and Apple Bloom, apparently determined to continue her sport. "Or is it that your list of interested parties is as blank as your flanks?"

Apple Bloom rolled her eyes. "Ooh, blank flanks. That's so original. Get some new material already. Besides, if we wanted dates, we would so have some"

"Yeah, but all that stuff is so icky, so we didn't want any," Scootaloo added.

"Okay, I totally believe you." Silver Spoon nodded her head slowly, just for the extra bit of emphasis.

"Well, if we did have dates, ours wouldn't be off slow dancing with Alula," Apple Bloom pointed out.

Scootaloo looked over to the dance floor. "Mushy stuff alert. Blech!"

"What?" Silver Spoon's head spun around, her eyes widening. Sputtering, she stormed off toward her date.

Scootaloo bumped hooves with Apple Bloom. "Score one for the home team!" She moved her hoof over to include Sweetie Belle, but there was no third hoof waiting to join. Sweetie Belle was staring at the entrance.

Sweetie Belle sighed as she watched him enter, Snails, with Tiara at his side. She'd seen him in his suit before, when he had tried it on that Thursday, but now, he looked even better. Perhaps it was the lighting, but she decided that that was wishful thinking. It was not that the suit looked better, but that Snails did. When he had tried it on at her sister's, he had fidgeted, unsure of himself. Now, he seemed calm and collected, the object of his desire at his side. The moroseness that had passed earlier returned in full force.

"Don't worry, Sweets," Scootaloo declared. She finished off her punch in one gulp and slammed the paper cup down on the table. "Apple Bloom and I totally have this."

"Yup, let's go!" Apple Bloom slammed her own unfinished cup down next to Scootaloo's, causing the punch to fountain up. She flicked the drops off her hoof and headed off with Scootaloo, excited to put their plan into action and score another point for the good guys.

"Wait! Don't do..." Sweetie Belle called after them, but her voice was lost in the noise of the crowd. "Don't do anything I wouldn't do," she finished quietly to herself.

Diamond Tiara watched as Pinkie Pie bounced onto the stage and grabbed the mic. "Hello, Ponyville! Are you ready to party?" The crowd roared its approval. "Alrighty-dighty, but first, a few quick thank yous." Pinkie Pie proceeded to thank the various people who had helped to make the dance possible, calling some to the stage, pointing out others wherever they were at. The weather team, the mayor, the musicians , the volunteers, and ultimately the crowd itself, all got thanked. When the applause for the last one died down, she continued on. "And now, I don't just want you to party. I don't just want you to party hard. I just want you to be happy! I want you to party" The usually verbose pink party pony stopped, lost for words for once.

Luckily, her salvation came in the form of a blur of cyan and the colors of the rainbow. Taking the mic from Pinkie, Dash shouted, "like you're Pinkie on cupcakes!"

"Yeah, like me on cupcakes!" And with a loud weee, Pinkie jumped off the stage, as the DJ cranked up the music and the crowd exploded into a frenzied sea of dancing.

"Lame," said Diamond Tiara as she rolled her eyes. "I can't wait until I'm old enough to move to Canterlot, where there's some ponies with some class. I guess that explains why Celestia sent Miss Sparkle here though. Seriously, look at her; is she dancing or having a seizure?" She looked expectantly towards her companion, awaiting the usual matching snide remark she'd get from Silver Spoon. She looked expectantly at Snails and could see the gears begin to turn as he figured out she was expecting a response, and then a couple as he thought of something witty to say.

"Yeah, a seizure," Snails said. Or something not so witty, apparently. "So, um, you want to dance?" he continued.

Stupid bet. She contemplated going to get a drink instead, but it looked like they were serving ruby berry punch. She'd never particularly cared for that flavor. Plus Sweetie Belle was thee and the more she could avoid people she knew tonight the better. Well, she was going to have to dance with him at some point, so might as well get it over with. "Yeah, why not?" Better than talking anyway.

Together, they headed out onto the dance floor. Thankfully, it was a fast number, so at least she wouldn't be expected to have too much physical contact with the colt. She let her body move to the music freely, while her mind began pondering ways to pay back the Crusaders. She felt an idea coming to her, almost within grasp, when her train of thought was interrupted as somepony slammed into her, nearly knocking her to the ground.

"Hey, why don't you watch where you are--" she growled as she spun around on the offending party, halting mid-sentence when she saw who had crashed into her. Speak of the Draconequus and he, or in this case she, shall appear. "Scootaloo!" she hissed.

"Sorry," Scootaloo replied. "Guess I got a little too involved in my dancing." She turned and resumed dancing with Apple Bloom.

"Guess I got a little too involved in my dancing" said Tiara mockingly, the words lost in the music and the sound of the crowd. Guess dancing was another thing Scootaloo was a failure at. Can't fly, can't get a cutie mark, can't dance. Oh, and apparently couldn't get date either. Although that was preferable to her own situation. Well, back to dancing.

The song wound down and Vinyl Scratch seamlessly switched over to another fast paced tune, one of Tiara's current favorites even. Tiara began to dance more energetically, somewhat enjoying herself, as the song's pounding beat drummed some of the night's misery into submission. Someone slammed into her again.

She looked behind her as another pony helped Apple Bloom back to her feet. "Sorry, tripped," she said, followed by a smile that made the statement about as believable as a flying pig.

The song ended and Vinyl spoke up. "Okay, all you lovebirds, we're going to take it down a notch. Give you a chance to do some slooooow dancing. It is my pleasure to present to you, straight out of Canterlot, the Noble House Quartet. I've heard them play before and let me tell you they are amazing. So let me hear you give them a loud Ponyville welcome!"

Tiara pondered going to get a drink to avoid the slow dance. She turned toward the punchbowl, only to remember the third member of the Crusaders. With a sigh, she dismissed the idea. Two of Tree Sap Trio had already had accidents involving her. No doubt Sweetie Belle was just waiting for her own chance, after her successful trial run in the boutique. Suffer through the slow dance then. No doubt Snails would wind up stepping on her hooves repeatedly.

Surprisingly, that didn't happen. Snails seemed to actually have a knack for slow dancing. Well, she guessed it shouldn't be too surprising for Snails to be good at something slow. And she'd probably be safe from the graceless duo of Apple Bloom and Scootaloo, as they'd hopefully vacated the dance floor for this number. Around her, other couples danced hoof in hoof. She looked through them, expecting to find Silver Spoon and Heart Throb, but did not find them. Probably in one of the booths on the side, she figured.

As the song ended and a new, more upbeat song started up, most couples cleared off the dance floor. She started to follow them, only to be stopped by Snails. He can't seriously be thinking to dance to this, she thought. This was a swing dance number. She could to this, thanks to the lessons she had taken, but he would wind up screwing it up and embarrassing her. But, yes, she realized, it was his intent to dance to this. Grudgingly, she acceded. One more thing to pay the trio back for when the night was over.

But again, he surprised her. He not only knew the proper moves, but moved with an elegance she would not have expected of him. Well, she certainly wasn't going to be out-danced by him, and she put some effort into her own dancing. 'He can actually dance pretty good,' Tiara thought.

He gave one of his dopey smiles. "Thanks, I've been taking lessons."

Tiara nearly stumbled as she realized she had spoken her last thought out loud. She turned her head frantically, hoping nobody else heard her praising Snails. Her reputation was taking enough of a hit as it was. And nearly stumbled again, as she noticed they were the center of attention. Apparently the pony in charge of the spotlights had focused on them. Luckily, she recovered. Tripping would be even more embarrassing. This night was turning out even worse than the family appreciation day plus Zap Apple debacle. She put on a fake smile and danced her best. Better to put a good face on it. And all through it, Snails had his goofy grin on, enjoying what would likely be the highlight of his pathetic life.

The song ended, the watching ponies gave a round of applause. Neither Scootaloo or Apple Bloom joined in, Tiara noted. No doubt they were sorely disappointed that Snails had not screwed up and sent them both into a pile, while the audience laughed at her. Well, thankfully Snails unexpected prowess had saved her from that. A surprisingly good dancer, she thought again, as she gave a quick bow and headed off the dance floor, Snails following behind, both of them a bit short of breath.

She was thirsty, she realized. Time to get something to drink. She took a quick glance toward the punchbowl and noted that Sweetie Bell, as expected, wasn't applauding either. Unlike the other two though, she had a wistful, sorrowful look on her face, Tiara noticed, before their eyes made contact and Sweetie Belle quickly turned away. Tiara wondered what that was about, only to once again be run into as both Scootaloo and Apple Bloom blundered into her, knocking her fore hooves out from under her. She let out a slight screech as the ground zoomed toward her head, only to suddenly stop as Snails caught her with one hoof, striking a dance-like pose. As she looked at him, his face once again turned into a vacuous grin. She mumbled a thanks and got her four feet under her again.

Enough was enough. It was time to put a stop to this irksome meddling. "Snails, would you mind getting me something to drink?" she asked. With him away, she would not feel the need to pull any punches. Besides, this way she could save her dress from the impending punch ambush.

Snails nodded affirmatively and set off, leaving Tiara alone with Apple Bloom and Scootaloo. She grabbed both of them by the neck and pulled them close. "Don't you think I don't know what you are trying to do. Isn't it enough that you ruined my talent show performance and then forced me to go on this date with Snails? Do you really need to go out of your way to try and embarrass me further?"

She was expecting them to try and deny the charges, but something about their reactions didn't fit. A hint of guilt about something. "That isn't it, is it? What, is this some other stupid idea to try and get a cutie mark? Tree Sap Trio dance saboteurs? No, that's not it either. So what it is?"

She looked at their faces, searching for a clue as to what their motivation was, for they were obviously messing with her for some reason. Apple Bloom's eyes flicker to the side for just a second and she followed them, to Sweetie Belle. A Sweetie Belle who was pouring punch for Snails with a glowing look of adoration in her eyes.

Realization of what was happening dawned on Tiara, causing elation to coursed through her body. "She's got a crush on him, on Snails of all people. You're not trying to ruin my night, are you? You're trying to ruin his." Her mind pondered the implications and an evil smile crept across her face as she had an ingenious idea, a way to get some payback on the blank flanks. "Oh, this is going to be grand. I'll tell you what I'm going to do. I'm going to make this a great night for him. I'm going to make him believe I've enjoyed every second of it. And then I'm going to go out with him again. And again. Not because I want to, because Celestia knows I don't, but because she does. And as I toy with what she desires and her heart crumbles, you'll know that is all your own fault. You forced me to make this date. You brought this about in an attempt to make me suffer. And now it is you that will suffer." She laughed gleefully.

Snails returned with two glasses of punch. She took the one he offered and looked at the two dejected fillies in front of her, and took a sip of her punch, then watched as they turned and slunk off toward Sweetie Belle. Had she really thought this night would be terrible? It was turning into one of the best of her life. Guess something you were sure would be horrible could sometimes, just maybe, surprise you. Snails had moves on the floor, the dance was turning out good, and ruby berry punch had never tasted so good.

Sweetie Belle watched her two friends coming towards her. Throughout the night, she had watched them messing with Diamond Tiara. They were doing it for her, she realized, trying to make sure Diamond Tiara had the worst night ever. Possibly hoping she would blow her top and end Snails's interest in Tiara. But whatever they had hoped to accomplish, it looked like it had backfired. Both her friends' heads hung low, while Diamond Tiara just gleamed at her with a victorious smile plastered across her face.

Sweetie Belle figured she probably had not helped the situation any either. When Snails had come over for punch, he had been so happy. He was convinced that all his efforts were paying off and he had gushed his thanks at her for making it all possible. Having watched him dance with Diamond Tiara all night, wishing he was dancing with her instead had hurt. Then to have him tell her that that situation would be unlikely to change had pushed her too far. She had snapped back at him to just take his drinks and go. The look of hurt on his face made her instantly regret her action, and she attempted to soften it by trying to make it sound like she had meant for him to get back to Tiara as quickly as possible, to keep the ball rolling. His adorable grin had returned and he had nodded, picking up the two cups and returning to Tiara, but surely even Snails could not be that socially oblivious. No, she had probably convinced him that she was tired of spending time with him.

"Sorry, Sweetie. I think we have made things worse," Apple Bloom said. "Now Tiara is determined to keep Snails. And not because she likes him, but because she knows you do."

"I hate all this mushy stuff. It never works out right!" exclaimed Scootaloo.

"Maybe if we tell him the truth about Tiara?" Apple Bloom asked.

"Won't work," Sweetie Belle said. "He's sure she's starting to like him. He told me so. And, besides, we swore not to tell about the bet."

All three fillies stood in silence by the punch table.

Diamond Tiara slowly danced with Snails, but her attention was elsewhere. She was watching the activity by the punch table. Every line, the placement of every hair on the faces of the trio she did her best to etch within her memory. She did not want to forget the smallest detail. This was almost worth the last two weeks. She just needed Silver Spoon to share it with.

Silver Spoon. Where was she? She still was not on the dance floor. She pushed herself clear of Snails and scanned the crowd. No sign of her friend. A quick search of the booths revealed she was not there either. Seeing Snails look at her wondering why she had cut short the dance, she leaned over and asked, "Have you seen Silver Spoon or her date recently?"

She watched his eyes move as he tried to recall if he had seen them. Finally, he replied, "No. But maybe they went for a walk?"

"A walk, maybe." She considered for a second. "Come on, Snails, I'm tired of the crowds and could use some fresh air. Let's go for a walk of our own."

She led the way to the entrance, confident Snails would follow. She asked the volunteers working the entrance if they had seen her friend, describing her dress. None had, until one mentioned that might have been the crying filly. Once that happened, they all recalled her and Tiara took off in the direction they indicated Silver Spoon might have gone.

Snails raced after Diamond Tiara, not sure what to make of this turn of events. The evening had seemed to be going so well. His dance lessons had paid off and he had even managed to catch Tiara when it had seemed like she might fall. Dumb luck that, but he was not going to complain about it.

Then he had gone to get punch at Tiara's request. Something had seemed to be bothering Sweetie Belle, though he was not sure what. Normally, he would have asked, but she did not seem like she really wanted to talk about it and, well, he was rather busy with the most important night of his life. He would have to remember to ask her later though. Then he had brought the punch to Tiara and she had eagerly returned to the dance floor, only to suddenly interrupt the dance to go look for Silver Spoon. Looking out for friends was a good trait, one Snails definitely valued both in himself and others, but the timing seemed a bit abrupt.

But when she had asked about Silver Spoon at the entrance, they had talked about a crying filly. It made Snails wonder if Diamond Tiara was one of those ponies who cared so deeply about others that she could sense when someone dear to her was in trouble, and if that was why she had been so suddenly determined to find her friend. If Silver Spoon was in trouble though, he would be there to help her. She was Tiara's friend and therefore he would do anything for her he would do for one of his own friends. And so he raced through the night after his date into the park.

Tiara pulled up suddenly. He stopped beside her and started to ask what was up, but she silenced him. "Do you hear that?" Tiara asked.

Snails listened, hearing only the usual sounds of the night, the chirping of crickets, the croaking of frogs, and the occasional hoot of an owl. None of those seemed likely to be what Tiara was referring to, so he shook his head.

"This way!" Tiara took off again.

Snails followed her, and now he could hear what she had heard, the sounds of sobbing. He continued to follow Tiara as she homed in on the sound. The sounded ended at a bench, upon which lay Silver Spoon, her head buried in her hooves.

"Sil! Are you okay?" Diamond Tiara asked, putting a comforting foreleg on the distressed filly's shoulder.

"Tia, I... I'm so glad to- H-he... dumped me." Silver Spoon whimpered, as she broke down into sobs again.

Snails stood by as Diamond Tiara comforted her friend, unsure what exactly to do, and so decided to do nothing, to just stand and listen. Slowly, Tiara coaxed what happened out of Silver Spoon. Silver Spoon spoke about how Heart Throb had spent the entire evening talking about himself. How he had decided to go to the local diner rather than the nice restaurant Silver Spoon had made reservations for. How he had spent more and more time at the dance with Alula, until he finally told Silver Spoon to get lost. About how she had tried to have the perfect evening for them. As she told her story, Snails felt something building within him.

When Scootaloo, Apple Bloom, and Sweetie Belle joined them, all three inquiring what had happened, Snails snapped out of his inaction. Silver Spoon had mentioned Big Pete's Ice Cream shop, so that is where he would go. It seemed as good of a place as any to try and find Heart Throb and make him apologize.

In a haze, he stalked the streets. The distance passed unnoticed, as he relived every sob, every tear of Silver Spoon's story. And by the time he arrived at the shop and saw the cause of this injustice, calmly sharing a milkshake with Alula, as if nothing was wrong, it was barely contained. "You!" he called out as he galloped up to Heart Throb, faces inches apart. "What you did was wrong!"

"Hold up there, pipsqueak." Heart Throb raised his forelegs and shoved Snails back, opening the space between them. "I don't know what has your horn in a knot, but I don't think it concerns me."

"You should be with Silver Spoon."

"Why? Did that stupid mud-pony send you after me?" Heart Throb sneered.

Snails ignored Alula's gasp as the racial slur and took a step forward, again getting in Heart Throb's face. "You take that back! You take that back and you say sorry!"

Heart Throb got to his feet, pushed the chair away, and drew himself up to his full height, while breathing in deeply. "Or what? You'll make me?"

Snails narrowed his eyes and flattened his ears. He widened the stance of his forelegs. And then he snorted, like a hero in the movies Snails loved.

Heart Throb laughed. "I'd like to see you try, scrawny. You wouldn't stand a chance. You sure you want to get pummeled for a mud-pony?" Heart Throb tilted his head and narrowed his eyes, waiting..

With a roar, Snails charged the larger colt, only to find himself connecting with nothing but the ground, as Heart Throb easily sidestepped and tripped him.

"All too easy. Are you part mud-pony or some-" Heart Throb's words were cut off as Snails connected with a rear hoof to the jaw. It had not been something he had planned to do. When he had heard the word yet again he had just lashed out. But it had connected and that felt good.

Snails got to his feet and stood before the larger colt. Heart Throb rubbed his jaw, wiping away some blood. "You know you're about to get severely pummeled now, right?"

Snails had indeed figured that was likely, but he was past caring. He also knew that was a price he was willing to pay. Heart Throb had agreed to go to the dance with Silver Spoon. To dump her in the middle of the dance was wrong. To call an earth pony such a term was wrong, a lesson Snails's parents had made clear with a bar of soap. And so someone had to stand to up for what was right. Since Silver Spoon was Tiara's friend and Snails was here, he would do so.

It was important that Heart Throb knew why Snails made this stand. Snails's brain, as if understanding the importance, did an even better job than usual of condensing into words all of his feelings and innate understanding of complex concepts. "Not right. Wrong."

Snails barely had time to curse his brain before Heart Throb attacked. Snails flattened his ears and pulled his head to the left as he heard Heart Throb's teeth snap shut where Snails's right ear had been a second before. Civilized ponies do not bite. To drive that point home, Snails swung his head back the other direction and the heads collided, knocking both ponies away from each other.

Warily, the two combatants circled each other. Heart Throb threw out some some kicks. Snails fended the attacks off easily enough. Too easily, he figured. Heart Throb was testing him. If Snails were to have any chance at all, he would have to end the fight quickly, hope for a lucky blow, like the earlier kick. Maybe a quick feint, and then Snails would attack, all out.

He lashed out with a quick punch, expecting Heart Throb to easily avoid it. His opponent, however, did not follow the script. He stepped into the blow, deflecting it just enough to rob it of what little force it had. And then he followed up with an all out attack of his own.

Snails never really had a chance. Between the size difference and the training, the blows pounded home mercilessly. Snails reeled back, trying to open the distance, but Heart Throb moved with him. Left, right, left, left, blow after blow slamming into his body. Through the thumps, he could hear the ripping of fabric. His suit, the suit Tiara had bought him, Heart Throb was ruining it. In desperation, he moved his legs to try and protect the suit. Too late, he realized that this is what Heart Throb had been waiting for, for Snails to try and protect his torso. He watched as his opponent spun around and buck, dual hooves coming at his face. Instinctively, Snails's magic flared, and he copied the spell Heart Throb had used on the playground.

Time slowed for Snails as he watched a small yellowish green shield blink into existence. He felt wonder at what he had created. And then a ray of hope as the hooves collided with his shield. A spiderweb of cracks spread across the shield. It occurred to Snails that the pattern was sort of pretty, before the hooves punched through like the shield was made of air and shards of the shield began to fall away. Pretty falling shards of glass, spinning through the air, soon to ring out as they collided with the ground. And then time sped up again, as the hooves collided with his head and the world suddenly got very unfocused and sideways.

"Weak," a harsh voice sneered. "Now to teach you a lesson you'll never forget."

Snails struggled to lift his head, to watch in fascination as a white pony shaped blur moved over him and reared. And then flew sideways as a fuzzy pink and purple shape with shiny silver patterns slammed into it.

"Nobody messes with what is mine. And you've messed with my best friend and my b- Date. My date," the shape declared. "Get out of here or I will have daddy ruin your father."

That voice, he knew that voice. Tiara. Tiara had come for him. And she had said he was hers. He reached out a hoof across the spinning world, past the receding hoof beats, desperately pushing back the blackness so he could say something that could not wait. Pain flared, bringing the darkness closer, as Tiara cradled his head in her hooves, but he hung on. He had to say this.

"Ti... Tiara. I..."

"Hush. Help will-"

"I'm... I'm sorry... about... the suit."

And he let blissful unconsciousness claim him.

Chapter 7

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The blue streak whooshed past Scootaloo's head, colliding with the wall. Pieces flew in all directions as the crayon shattered. Worse yet, Sweetie Belle noticed, it had left a mark where it hit the wall.

"Gaaaah!" Sweetie Belle screamed. Now she would have to clean that up before her sister noticed. At this rate, the card was never going to get done. And now no more blue. She sighed as she looked at what she had made so far. A crudely drawn Snails, next to an even more crudely drawn Snips that might have started out as white unicorn filly, waving goodbye to a pony in front of the double doors of a building. A sign with a big red cross sat to the left of the doors. One door was colored blue and the other was as yet uncolored. Sweetie Belle looked over the remaining crayons and settled on a green one. It would not be perfect, but it would have to do. She grasped it between her teeth and started coloring the door.

"Ah did tell you it was a bad idea," Apple Bloom said.

"Yeah, yeah, you've already told me that," Scootaloo replied.

"Ah told you Ah was going to do that too."

"I know, okay?"

Sweetie Belle's eyes crossed as she focused on the point of the crayon in her mouth, as she pondered chucking it at whichever of her two friends spoke up next. Maybe it would do the trick where the blue one had failed. Of course, if it broke, she would end up losing another crayon, but she did have another green crayon. She envisioned the crayon landing with a satisfying thunk on a forehead. Knowing her luck though, she would miss. She glanced over at the spot on the wall where the previous crayon had met its end. She really did not feel like having more to clean up.

"It was a bad-" Apple Bloom started up.

Sweetie Belle spat out the crayon. "Will you two be quiet?" she screeched, her voice cracking on the last word.

"She started it," Scootaloo pointed out.

"Nu-uh," Apple Bloom protested.

Papers and art supplies went flying as Sweetie flipped over the table. "I don't care who started it. I just wanted to make this card perfect and get to the hospital before visiting hours are over. Now I have to clean the wall, and the card isn't turning out as well as I hoped." She looked around at the mess she had just created. "Oh, great. Even more stuff to clean up." Sweetie sighed. "I'm going to get a bucket with some soap to clean the wall."

Sweetie's feet took her to the kitchen. She took out a small bucket from under the sink and began to fill it up with hot water. As she added some soap, she watched as the clear water became obscured under soapy bubbles. The water was just like her life of late, she realized. It had all been clear, but ever since the talent show, it had gotten murky. Although it was not quite right yet, something was missing. She shut the water off and tossed a rag into the bucket. That was better. She was not sure what exactly the rag symbolized, but it seemed fitting somehow, some extra thing to mess up the purity of the water, soon to make it even murkier. She picked up the bucket and headed back to the room.

Sweetie entered the room to find the table back in its place. Her art supplies were stacked neatly upon it. Even the bits of blue crayon had been cleaned up. On either side of the table, facing the door, sat Scootaloo and Apple Bloom.

"We're sorry," the two said simultaneously.

"We know this is hard on you..." Scootaloo continued.

"And we didn't mean to be insest-, inzensu-, not thinking of how you are feeling," Apple Bloom finished.

Water sloshed out of the bucket as it hit the ground. Sweetie Belle bounded forward and threw her forelegs around her two best friends, one after the other. The water seemed clearer somehow.

"Let's finish the cleaning and we can go visit Snails in the hospital," Apple Bloom suggested.

With the combined effort of the three fillies, the mark on the wall was quickly cleaned off and a rug strategically placed over where the soapy water had spilled. Then, the rag was placed in the laundry room, and the bucket returned to its place under the sink.

Sweetie Belle looked around, making sure that everything was sufficiently ordered to pass a Rarity inspection. Spotting nothing that was out of order, she slipped on her pack and waited by the door for her friends. She was joined by Scootaloo, but as Apple Bloom approached, Scootaloo's eyes shot open wide and she raced back toward the craft room. Apple Bloom looked questioningly at Sweetie Belle, who could only shrug. The unspoken question was answered when Scootaloo returned, an envelope in her mouth.

"You almost forgot this," Scootaloo mumbled, before slipping the card into Sweetie's pack.

"Good thing I have the bestest friends in all of Equestria to remind me," Sweetie Belle beamed, shutting the door behind her as the three friends headed out.

The door clicked shut behind Diamond Tiara as she left Silver Spoon's home. They had spent most of the time discussing the events of the dance, both the bad and the, well, she wouldn't call it good. Interesting would do, she decided. Both the bad and the interesting. On the one hoof was the disaster that was Silver Spoon's night, and on the other was Diamond Tiara's.

Who could have imagined that Sweetie Belle would fall for Snails? Or that Snails would start would a fight with Heart Throb? That dim witted fool seemed to have a knack for making things interesting. She reached up and touched the necklace Snails had given her and smiled. And then of all the things he could do before passing out, he apologized for ruining his cloths. That part of the story had even resulted in Silver Spoon showing a glimmer of her usual self, as she had teased Diamond Tiara, saying that she thought it was sort of cute.

Other than that though, Silver Spoon had not been her usual self. She was feeling down, betrayed, and dreading what Monday at school would bring. Being dumped by her date in the middle of the dance would have been bad enough. Add the fight to the mix though and everyone would be talking and speculating about the events. And that would, inevitably, lead to discussion of Silver Spoon's night. It was an unmitigated disaster for her friend.

There had been one other thing on Silver Spoon's mind as well, and that was why Snails had started the fight in the first place. Diamond Tiara wished she had a good answer for her friend, but alas, she did not. She could see him chasing after Heart Throb to scold him for abandoning his date. That much made sense, but getting into a fight, let alone a fight with a bigger colt, for someone who was not your friend just did not make sense.

Diamond knew she herself would not have gotten into a fight at all. It would take a threat to her life before she resorted to physically brawling with someone. No, she would have stayed with Silver Spoon and gotten payback on Heart Throb and Alula at a later point in time. The payback would happen, she thought, smiling wickedly.

Boys were different though, a lot quicker to resort to a physical confrontation. Why think through a problem when you could kick it instead? It was probably because they were not as smart as girls. Snails definitely was not as smart as Silver Spoon or her, in any case. Even Apple Bloom was probably smarter than he was.

A good thing though, that lack of intelligence. It would make it easier for her to play out her charade with Snails. Play the dating game. Maybe even kiss him. She wondered briefly where that thought had come from and forced her body to give a little shudder. Still, it would be practice for the future at least. Yes, that would be how she would look upon the whole exercise. It would be an educational experience, and so being, it would benefit her later when she moved to Canterlot and met a handsome stallion with proper manners.

Silver Spoon's question returned to her though. What had made Snails go after the bigger colt? Surely he had not thought that getting beat up would impress her, or that his brawling could somehow undo the ruin that was Silver Spoon's night. Either of those motivations would be stupid, even for him. She tried to think of some other reason, one that made more sense, but none came. She herself would have stood up for Silver Spoon, naturally enough. Without actually resorting to fighting, of course. But for a friend of a friend? Why would that concern her?

As she stood there pondering for a while before it occurred to her what she was doing. Or rather, what she was not doing. She was just standing there, no longer walking. Either she had gotten so involved in her thinking that she had forgotten to keep walking or her subconscious had taken her where it wanted her to go.

She took in the large marble sign in front of her, with its red circle, white cross, and four pink hearts, as well as the three story building behind it. Ponyville's hospital. That lent credence to the subconscious guiding her theory. As long as she was here though, she might as well go in. What better way to get the information than straight from the pony's mouth. And, besides, if she was going to pull off this whole relationship thing, this was exactly the sort of thing a concerned girlfriend would do.

Her mind made up, she pushed her way through the doors and entered the hospital proper. Her nose scrunched as the smell of hospital air hit her, the smell of disinfectants used to keep the place clean. The least they could do was use some pleasant air fresheners to cover it. Still, she was here for a reason and she supposed she could stand it for a little while. She made a mental note to remember to bring some fragrant flowers to cover the smell if she were to visit again.

That done, she set off to find Snails. She supposed she could ask, but a quick looked over at the reception area made her dispense with that idea. The single pony manning the desk looked overwhelmed as it was. No pony else looked to be a good choice to ask either. The ones that were obviously hospital staff moved with a purposeful stride, the stride of ponies on a mission. It appeared today was not a quiet Sunday afternoon at the hospital. She would figure it out for herself then.

Spotting a map, she went over and examined it, quickly finding the children's ward. A quick glance to find the right doorway and she was off. A left here, a right there, up the stairs, and another right, and she found herself in what should be the right area. She strode up to the nurses' station. "Nurse?"

"Redheart," the nurse replied, apparently taking Diamond Tiara's query to mean Tiara cared about the nurse's name, rather than just her attention. "How can I help you?"

"What room is Snails in?"

"Snails? Ah, you mean..." The nurse cut herself off as she ran a hoof down a clipboard until she found what she was looking for. "Ah, yes, here he is. He should be in Room 212."

Diamond Tiara took a step toward the hall, when the nurse added, "But he's asleep right now, I think. At least that is what the three fillies that were here earlier said."

Inwardly, Tiara grumbled at her subconscious for leading her here for naught. No answer for the question, apparently. As long as she was here, she might as well make sure. "I'm going to peek anyway, just in case," she told the nurse.

"Okay. It'll be on the right side."

She walked down the hall. She glanced at the numbers next to each door: 202, 204, 206, 208, 210, and finally 212. Carefully, she opened the door and glanced inside. With the curtains drawn, the room was dark. She could make out a lump on the bed. "Snails, you awake?" she called out quietly.

When no answer came, she swore under her breath. What a waste of time this had been. She might as well go home. Quietly she shut the door and headed back the way she had come. At the nurse's querying look, she nodded and said that he was still asleep, before retracing her steps back toward the entrance. She thrust the main door open, venting some of her frustration upon the inanimate object, and nearly took the head off a short greyish green pony in the process.

"Oh, hey, Snips," she told the startled colt.

The flustered Snips quickly regained his composure at the sight of a known face and reached out a hoof to catch the closing door. "Heya, Diamond Tiara. I'm just about to go visit Snails. Are you here to visit Snails? Oh, wait, of course you are. Why else would you be here? How is he?" He rattled off one line after the other, not giving Diamond Tiara a chance to respond in between.

"Sleeping," Tiara responded.

"Oh." Snips eyes shifted around, his eyebrows moving. Even his body shifted, as he seemed to be torn between entering the hospital anyway or going off in some other direction.

Diamond Tiara tilted her head, observing him as he flipped between the two conflicting ideas. She rolled her eyes. The thought process of boys was so alien. Her stared at him as an idea occurred to her. If she could not get the answer for Silver Spoon from Snails, maybe Snips would know. The two ponies were as inseparable as she and Silver Spoon were. If any other pony knew the inner workings of Snails's mind, it would be Snips.

"Snips... Why?" she asked.

"Huh?" Snips replied, utterly confused.

"The fight. Why?"

"Oh, you want to know why Snails decided to fight that blow hard?" Tiara nodded.

Snips dropped his rump to the ground and let the door go, forcing Diamond Tiara to get out of its way. She scowled at him, but he seemed not to notice, deep in thought. Several times, he started, only to cut himself off. Finally, he said, "To understand, you've got to understand Snails. Really understand Snails. Walk with me."

Walk with him? That sounded like it meant that this would take a while. Did she want to spend that much time with him? He seemed to have the answer to her question though, and if she did not get the answer, it would continue to trouble her for at least another hour. Besides, she did not have anything else planned for today, what with Silver Spoon not in the mood to do anything, not even plan their revenge upon Alula. Mind made up, she fell into step beside him.

Snips walked silently beside her. Just when Diamond Tiara started to wonder if he had forgotten what she had asked, he asked her a question, "Do you remember when Snails got his cutie mark?"

She tried to recall, but she could not. She knew he had gotten his before she had gotten hers, but he was not important enough to her for her to remember when or how he had gotten his cutie mark. She gave a questioning shrug.

He nodded and started to talk. "I didn't think you did. It was just a little bit after Silver Spoon got hers and so almost all the attention was focused on her. Yours certainly was, anyway."

Diamond Tiara tried to recall anything about Snails at that time. About all that came to mind was him hobbling around trying to play Pin the Tail with his leg in a cast at Silver Spoon's cute-ceañera. She tried to recall how he had wound up in that cast, but nothing came to mind. She did recall that she and Silver Spoon had given him extra turns just because it had been so amusing to see him hobble around. Letting the sight play through her mind even now, she couldn't help but smile.

Snips took her smile as a sign to continue. "Snails and I had been playing out by the big lake, climbing one of the cliffs. We were about halfway up when it started to rain. Not the usual rain either, but a rogue storm the weather team didn't bother to coral because it wasn't going to come near enough to Ponyville.

"So there we were, hanging onto this cliff, with sheets of water coming down upon is. It felt like we were standing in a waterfall, or maybe as if we were pirates fighting the waves in heavy seas. It would have been awesome except that the cliff was, like, all wet and muddy, and we could barely hang on. We were over halfway up, so we figured we would climb the rest of the way.

"We're going up real slow, our coats slick with all the gunk pouring down, when I slipped. Stupid short legs. And I would have fallen, right then and there, except for Snails. He caught me, hanging onto me with one leg, while he had another wrapped around a root. It was right out of a story, so awesome. Well, except that the root broke and we both fell. But if not for that, it would have been really cool.

"That's about the last I remember. Hit my head on a rock, knocked me clean out, left me with a nasty gash amongst other things. Snails was lucky. He only broke his leg. That'd probably have been the end of us though, with the storm and all, except for Snails.

"He pulled me to a safe spot, then hobbled back to town with his broken leg to get help. All by himself, injured, with lightning and thunder and buckets of water pouring down. Somewhere in the middle of all that, he got his cutie mark."

Diamond Tiara fit the story into what she knew. It certainly explained why Diamond Tiara could not recall Snips being at the party and why Snails had a cast. She concluded that what Snips was saying was probably true, but she did not see the relevance. "Okay, so he saved himself and got his cutie mark. How does that explain yesterday?"

"Don't you get it?" Snips asked. "No, of course you don't. When you look at Snails's mark, what do you see? What do you think it means?" He paused, giving her time to answer. The ideas that flashed through her mind were ones she and others had made remarks about before when discussing Snails: slimy, slow, icky. The usual sort of things one thought of when thinking of a snail. She did not think that those were the answers he was looking for though.

Snips seemed to be able to follow along with her thoughts. "See, you got it all wrong. It isn't the snail. Snails is the shell. He protects the soft bits he's attached to from harm, no matter how icky they might be." Diamond Tiara glared at Snips, unsure if he was insulting her friend. Snips was oblivious to her glare though, as he continued, "He didn't go to town to save himself. He went to save me. Protecting others is his talent."

The pair walked in silence for a bit as she pondered what he said. It made sense, in a fashion. About as much sense as having a snail for a cutie mark could make, short of being some sort of animal scientist or a cooky outcast animal provider, anyway. But it didn't explain it all.

She stopped, causing Snips to stop as well. "Okay, Snips, that sort of makes sense. But it still doesn't explain why. If he did it for you or for me, I could understand. You're his friend, I was his date. But Silver Spoon wasn't either of those. She barely said two words to him. The only reason she spent time with him is because he spent time with me. So why?"

Diamond Tiara watched as Snips stood still, his face shifting as he struggled to think. Finally, he seemed to settle on something.

He jabbed his hoof at Tiara. "When you look at somepony, what is the first thing you see? The things that are wrong, weaknesses. I'm not tall. Snails isn't smart. Apple Bloom has a blank flank." Diamond Tiara wanted to protest, but Snips cut her off with a second jab to the chest. "No, you asked the question. Let me finish the answer. Maybe I'm wrong there, but I don't think so. Most ponies, they see both good and bad.

"Snails though, when he looks at somepony he likes, he sees them as the best they could be. That stupid half full glass people always talk about? For him, it is full. Not half full. Full-full. When he looks at me, I might as well be a Royal Canterlot Guard, proud and tall. When he looks at you, he sees how you adore your father, he sees your drive, he remembers how you gave him extra turns at "Pin the Tail", and so on." Snips smiled. "I should know, I hear about it often enough of late."

After a short laugh, he continued, more somber. "So that is how he sees you. All the mean things you have said in the past, forgotten. And Silver Spoon? Well, she is your best friend. And that makes her his friend, even if she doesn't think about him the same way. And since she is his friend, he'll act to protect her, no matter the cost. Make sense?"

Tiara tried to contemplate the world from such a vantage point so alien to her own. Try as she might, it slipped away after just the briefest of glimpses. Still, it seemed to fit for Snails. It explained much about him. But this whole dialogue led to another question.

"You don't think the best of me, that much is obvious. Maybe you have some reason for that. I'm cool, you're not, and so on. So why do you support Snails in... in this?"

"Because he wouldn't believe me if I told him. Because he is my friend. Because he would do it for me. Because maybe the world would be a better place if we all saw through his eyes. Because if I don't believe in what he sees in others, how can I believe in what he sees in me? Any of those. Maybe all of those."

Diamond Tiara just stood there as Snips started to walk away. The questions had been answered, even as her mind tried to make sense of it all, so there was no point in following. She should not have asked Snips after all, she realized. This was going to be on her mind for much longer than just an hour now. Snips though had one more thing to add. He stopped and looked back over his shoulder.

"Tiara... I may not be the biggest carrot in the vegetable patch, but I'm not a complete idiot. I know there's something going on here between you and the Crusaders. That Snails is caught in the middle somehow.

"...Don't break him."

The light of the Monday morning sun flooded into the room as the nurse opened the drapes the window, shocking Snails into wakefulness. Snails rubbed the sleep out of his eyes, while waiting for them to adjust to the sudden shift in light levels. Blinking, he looked into the face of the white coated nurse who was now inspecting his head.

"Good morning, Pe--" Nurse Redheart stopped herself at the sight of Snails's grimace. "Snails," she finished with a slow, overly dramatic wink.

Snails grinned. He really was not fond of his given name. On top of that, it was used so rarely that he rarely responded to it. Unless his parents used it, of course, but that had more to do with the tone of use than the words. If they used it, he was in trouble, big trouble, so that was yet another reason why he preferred nopony use it. The rest of the time, they either referred to him as Snails, same as everyone else. He had asked Nurse Redheart to call him Snails after she had read his name off the clipboard the first time, and though she had almost slipped, she had remembered.

"Good morning to you too," Snails said, politely, eying the breakfast on the tray she carried.

"So how you are feeling today? Head feeling better?" she asked, setting the tray down.

"Much better, thanks. Got a head made of rock, my dad always says," Snails said with a grin, as he cooperated with the nurse's poking and prodding as much as he could. His body ached in various spots, doing its best to remind him that being on the receiving end of a beating was not a good thing.

"Good thing too. Looks like you will be out of here tonight, as far as I can tell. Although the doctor will have the final say on that, of course. Just try to avoid fights, if you can help it."

Snails nodded but did not make any promises. He certainly would not go looking for any fights, that was for sure. If the situation called for one though, he would not back down. The body was pretty good at healing. Memories, on the other hoof, tended to stick around far longer. He would rather live with temporary physical pain than long term regrets.

Her task complete, Nurse Redheart headed to the door, stopping just before it. She raised a hoof, indicating an envelop on the nightstand. "Almost forgot. Some fillies left you a card yesterday."

Snails pulled the card from the envelope as the nurse left the room, hoping he was right as to who might have left it. The outside of the card did not really tell him, just a crayon drawing of him leaving the hospital, though it did not appear to be quite finished. Opening the card to reveal the inside revealed a large red crayon outline of a heart. The aches and soreness vanished, replaced by a blissfulness. He lightly brushed the card, then set it open upon the nightstand, scooting aside a book to make room. He adjusted the position twice, and then, satisfied, picked the book up.

It was a book he had read before, but there was a comforting aspect about that, something familiar in a strange place. It also read easy, a boon with his aching head. Besides, he liked it, and it was not like he had much choice; the selection of books available from the hospital's bookcart had been limited. Most of it was aimed for older ponies, so when he had seen a novel from his favorite secret agent series, it had been a no brainer to pick it.

He spent the next while reading, interrupted only by the doctor, a visit from his parents, and lunch. The doctor had checked him over and confirmed that Snails should be free to go home that night. The parents had visited during his lunch, just a short visit. There was not much to say that had not been covered during their visit yesterday. Lunch was hospital food, which meant its purpose was primarily to discourage ponies from getting sent to the hospital. At least, Snails assumed that was its purpose. The cookies were not half bad though.

With lunch finished and his parents having completed their visit, promising to be back to pick him up tonight, he resumed reading his book. He had just gotten to a good part, where the secret agent was about to escape from the clutches of the evil mastermind's death trap and put a stop to her plan to build a publishing empire, when somepony knocked on the door. He pulled himself away from the story and looked at the doorway. There stood Diamond Tiara.

"Hi," she said.

Something seemed slightly off in her voice. It seemed quieter than usual, without its usual brashness. Maybe she was worried about him. It would only be natural.

"Hi! I'm fine."


"I'm good." Snails tapped the side of his head with a hoof. "Got a hard head, no permanent damage done, see?"

"Ah." The tone was still off. Snails decided to try again.

"I liked the card you and Silver brought yesterday."

Diamond Tiara seemed confused a second, before she noticed the card on the nightstand. "Oh, yes, the card, of course the card. I brought flowers" With that last sentence, she seemed to find herself again. She smiled at Snails and strolled into the room, dropping a bundle of flowers onto Snails's bed. The smell of the flowers hit his nose, and he was momentarily taken aback by the flower's potency.

"Smells... good."

"A bit strong, I know. But I figured it would help cover up that awful hospital stench. Why they can't make these sorts of places smell nicely I don't know. Maybe they could send some of the smellier patients home or something," Diamond Tiara said as she reached over and picked up the card, examining the picture on the front, then opening it and looking at the inside. She frowned and her eyes narrowed, before she turned to Snails with a very big smile. "Oh dear me, it looks like I forgot to sign it. I should fix that. Be right back."

Snails watched her leave the room, then occupied himself trying to find a good spot for the flowers. Some place near enough to make it clear he appreciated them, but far enough away to lessen the aroma. Trying to find just the right distance was easier said than done though, as he moved it back and forth between close and far. Finally, he decided that he would put up with close for now, and then move them away once Diamond Tiara left, if they still bothered him.

Diamond Tiara re-entered, carrying a vase on her back and the card in mouth. The card she tossed to him and while he examined the signature inside, she set down a vase and put the flowers in it. She settled into a chair, giving him a little smile as he put the card back in its place.

Both sat quietly, until the need to fill the silence overcame them at the same time, resulting in them talking over each other. The silliness of it made them both giggle.

"I'm sorry. You go ahead," Diamond Tiara said.

"I was just asking you to tell me more about yourself," Snails said.

"You know all that from school. What more is there really to tell?" Diamond Tiara asked.

"The stuff you don't talk about there. Your hopes, your dreams, plans for the future, maybe?"

"Plans for the future, huh?" Diamond Tiara said, stopping to think for a bit. Snails took advantage of the silence to rearrange his pillows a bit and make himself more comfortable. He knew Diamond Tiara was one of Diamond Tiara's favorite topics so he wouldn't have to say much once she got going, but could just relax and listen.

"Canterlot. Maybe Los Pegasus or Manehatten, if I don't get into Royal University," Diamond Tiara began. "One of those cities for sure. A place with class, sophistication, and a good night life. That's where I want to go to college. I'm going to major in journalism or business, with a minor in the other.

"Sil and I are going to room together. We'll get an apartment in the city, someplace that has a nice view. Probably of a river or the ocean. It'll be up on the top floor of the building." She smiled while talking, as her mind drifted through her future and she narrated. "It will have a big living room in which we'll hold parties. And the parties will spill out onto the patio, where we'll admire the stars while drinking wine. Once we're old enough, of course." The last statement was rushed, and Snails could tell she had no intention of letting her age stop her. Still, he nodded, and she continued to describe how her college life would be.

He tensed up as it occurred to him that this was different than the ways Diamond Tiara usually spoke to him. Not that it was unfamiliar to him, he had definitely heard her speak this way before, just not to him. It took him a moment before he could place it. This was how she sounded when telling a story to Silver Spoon and he had just happened to be in the general area. All the tenseness was gone and Snails relaxed, letting the words wash over him, as he tossed in an occasional "uh-huh" or nod to show that he was paying attention.

Diamond Tiara finished off describing college, how she would graduate, and moved on to what her first post college job would be. Snails was amazed that she had thought that far ahead. For him, the furthest he had tried to foresee his future was two weeks ahead, and that plan had not included waking up in a hospital. Although, all things considered, it had sort of worked out. Yet here was Diamond Tiara, laying out her life, step by step, the goals and how she would achieve them, and the dreams to go with them. She even had contingency plans to put herself back on track if something did not work out.

Something Diamond Tiara said derailed his train of thought, and he quickly thought over the last thing she had said to figure out what it was. She was talking about social events she would attend, her husband at her side. That hit him like a kick to the head. "Her husband, who would be, like, a captain of industry or something else respectable," that is what she had said. That was not him. It would never be him. He did not have the brains or the charm.

"Are you alright?" Diamond Tiara asked.

"Huh? Oh, sure. Just bumped a sore spot, that's all." Snails laughed weakly and settled back down. "Please, tell me more."

Her head tilted for a brief moment as she looked at him, but straightened when he forced a grin. "Okay," she said and continued laying out her life story.

For Snails though, his mood was ruined by the new reality. This, whatever it was that he had worked so hard for, would not last. Diamond Tiara had plans and they did not include him. He nodded and "Ah-huh"ed while Tiara talked, but he was not really listening anymore. Instead, he tried to find some way that it could work, but came up empty.

"And after the state funeral, they'll make, like, the biggest statue of me in Canterlot in the Royal Gardens," Diamond Tiara concluded. She rubbed her throat and looked over at the clock on the wall. "Geez, I've been talking your ears off for, like, an hour. I can be such a motormouth."

"I don't mind. I like listening to you," Snails replied, automatically trying to please her even with his troubled thoughts.

"Well, I should still let you get at least a few words in. So how about you? What are your plans?"

Snails scrambled to think of something, anything that might impress Diamond Tiara and yet also seem plausible. Ideally, something that might actually work. He could come up with nothing, however and so he borrowed his friend's dream instead. "A barber shop," he said. "Snips and I are going to open a barber shop."

Seeing that it did not have the desired effect on Diamond Tiara, he acted quickly to embellish it. "It'll be in Canterlot." The first alteration made, he quickly added more. "High end. We'll cater to all the best nobles and famous celebrities. And it will be a chain. An empire of barber shops." He swept his foreleg to stress the size of hairstyling empire. "With our own line of hair products."

The truth was that Snips's dream did not include anything that major. He just wanted a small shop, with normal ponies. And it certainly was not Snails's plan to go into business with his friend. He had no knack for cutting hair, and he knew it. But at least it sounded good, and as he had never really thought about his future, he figured it was not really a lie.

Snails became aware of Diamond Tiara looking at him expectantly, waiting for him to continue. What else could he talk about? Mane styles would probably bore her, and she probably knew more about the topic than he did. He decided to describe his dream house, except he realized he had no such dream. He would have to wing it. A mansion, with a pool, he decided, figuring he might as well go for broke. In for the tree, in for the orchard, as an earth pony might say.

The sound of a pony clearing her throat interrupted Snails's thoughts. He looked over toward the sound to find Twilight Sparkle standing just outside the doorway, with another familiar pony sulking at her side. Snails scowled.

"Diamond Tiara, would you mind giving Heart Throb and I some time alone with Snails?" Twilight Sparkle asked.

"Sure," Diamond Tiara answered. She glanced over at the clock again. "I should probably be going anyway. Got homework to do and I want to swing by Sil's. See you later, Snails." Snails blushed as she gave him a quick peck on the cheek.

"Uh... yeah. See you. Thanks for the card." Snails cursed at himself for how lame that sounded. He watched as Diamond Tiara walked toward the door, and as she deliberately tripped and slammed her shoulder into Heart Throb. Snails could see the anger rising in Heart Throb, but all he did was cast a frustrated look at Twilight Sparkle.

"Oops, sorry," Diamond Tiara uttered, then threw a sly wink Snails's way, before leaving the room. Typical Tiara, always knowing exactly how far she could push someone without getting into trouble. Usually, this was a side of her he tried to overlook. This time though, he grinned, until he noticed Heart Throb glaring at him.

"Heart Throb has come to apologize before he returns to Canterlot." Twilight Sparkle nudged Heart Throb. "Go on."

"I'm sorry," Heart Throb mumbled, barely audible, his glare having shifted to a glower.

"What was that?" Twilight Sparkle asked, holding a hoof close to an ear.

"I said that I am sorry," Heart Throb said, louder this time. "I shouldn't have said what I said."

Twilight Sparkle looked expectantly at Snails.

Snails looked back at her puzzled. "Apology accepted?" Snails said.

That seemed to satisfy Twilight Sparkle, who smiled and said, "See? That wasn't so bad." Her horn glowed and she pulled out a scroll and quill from her pack. Unfurling the scroll, she scanned down the list until she found the item she was looking for and checked it off. "Okay, next thing to do: Take Heart Throb to the train station."

All the while Twilight Sparkle was occupied with her list, Snails found himself in a staring contest with Heart Throb. It was obvious that Heart Throb had meant none of his apology, and that he now blamed Snails for his training being cut short. Probably for the possibly of putting a blemish on his record that might make his getting into the academy less than the sure thing it had been as well, no doubt.

The contest ended as Miss Sparkle put away her scroll and quill, and Heart Throb resumed the role of sulking colt. Snails breathed a sigh of relief as the pair left the room. His thoughts returned to Diamond Tiara. What was he going to do? Should he break it off now, since it would never work? Should he enjoy it while it lasted? Or was it possible that there might be some way he could succeed, some way he could get into a good college? He was so close. It just was not fair.

At least Heart Throb would shortly be out of Ponyville, back in Canterlot. That would be one less worry. It wasn't that he was afraid the bigger colt, just that he had enough troubles of his own already. Besides, by the time the competition was held, Heart Throb would probably have forgotten all about him.

The competition. What was it called again? The something something championships. He shrugged, deciding the exact name did not really matter. Heart Throb had said whoever won it got into the academy, regardless of academic standing. That was the answer. He would enter. He would find a way to win. He had a plan for the future.

"If not a captain of industry, then just a captain. Her captain."

Chapter 8

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The small yellowish bubble struggled into existence. Throughout its short lifespan, it fluctuated in size, though never attaining a size larger than a Snips's head. In its last second of existence, it lost its spherical shape, before bursting. Snails's face shifted from strained to grinning, as proud as if he had created a bubble large enough to cover all of Ponyville. "I can do it, see?" he said to his friend.

"Wow!" Snips said, applauding the effort. "That was awesome. When'd you learn to do that?"

"During the fight." The mention made his head ache, and he rubbed a sore spot. It was good to be back home. Still not quite fully recovered, but his parents said he could go to school tomorrow. He still could not believe he was actually looking forward to that, but he was. It would mean he could see more of Diamond Tiara. His gaze drifted over to his most prized possession: the card she had made for him. That in turn led his thoughts to Tiara's plans for life and his own newfound plan. "I'm going to have to work lots though so I can win the competition."

"Heh, imagine that. My buddy Snails is actually trying to get into a school," Snips said. He cocked a single eyebrow and peered at Snails, before his face shifted to mock horror. "Someone send for help! I think we have a changeling here!"

"Not a changeling. I'm just a member of the..." Snails frowned at his inability to figure out the big word, then held up his hoof and grinned as the word came to him. "Smart ponies." Okay, he admitted to himself, it was not the word Miss Sparkle had used that one time when Snails had mostly slept through whatever she had been talking about. But the words were still right. Better even, as they were ones anypony would know.

"What does it take to enter the competition?" Snips asked.

"I was just gonna show up," Snails replied. That there might be more to it than that was not something that had occurred to him. Very few things required signing up ahead of time in Ponyville. "You think it'll take more?"

"Well, it is in Canterlot. They probably have lines and lists and stuff. You know them big city types."

"Oh," Snails said, his hopes deflating. Stopping a pony from doing what he wanted did seem like something the big city types would do, if Heart Throb was any indication of what big city types were like. He winced as his hoof crept up and rubbed the sore spot on his head again.

"We could ask Miss Sparkle," Snips suggested. "She knows all sorts of stuff, and she's from Canterlot. Plus her brother is the Captain of the Guard and all. If anypony in town would know it'd be her."

Snails's hopes reinflated. Twilight Sparkle was indeed from Canterlot, and she was nice. If most ponies from Canterlot were like her, there was hope. "Okay!" Snails said. "Let's go!"

"You up for it?" Snips asked, one eyebrow cocked again. "Wouldn't wanna end up back in the hospital, all those nurses getting stuff for you. That one especially she was sorta cute."

Snails snorted. "Nurse Redheart? She's old, like twenty-five or maybe thirty. That's like almost as old as our moms." He stopped for a second, remembering how Redheart had brought him an extra pillow and sneaked in some extra dessert at meal times. "She was nice though."

Snips grinned in reply, then nudged Snails with his hoof. "Uh-huh, lovercolt. You got all the mares after you! First Tiara, now the sexy nurse. No doubt Sweetie Belle as well."

"Bah. You know Sweetie and me are just friends. I'm a one mare stallion," Snails said, puffing his chest up proudly. "Besides, I got my hooves full with just one."

"Our hooves is more like it. You sure know how to pick 'em!"

The two colts headed out, their progress briefly halted by a conversation with Snails's mother to let her know where they were going, complete with a not so brief hug that ended only when the embarrassed Snails managed to wiggle his way free. Once outside, they passed the time with good natured banter that continued until the Golden Oaks Library was in sight.

By that point, the topic of conversation had gone full circle, as conversations often do, returning to Snails's plan to enter the contest. After a quip, Snails watched his friend go from laughing to quite serious.

"That contest... Heart Throb is going to be there, won't he?" Snips asked.

Snails shrugged. Heart Throb probably would be there, but it was always possible he would not. Maybe his parents got really angry at him and locked him in his room or something. Or else he ran away and joined the Prance Foreign Legion under an assumed name. Do they have age requirements to join? Could he fake his way past that? "Do you think he'll wear a fake mustache?"

"He'll huh what?" Snips asked, stopping his walk with a perplexed look on his face. The look went away as he shook his head. "No. No joking now, Snails. His shield was good, better than yours. He's had teachers and everything. If you're going to win this thing, you're going to need lessons. Good lessons from someone who knows what they are doing."

Snails halted besides his friend. He recalled the bubble Heart Throb had made in the schoolyard and could almost feel the aching of his hooves from when he had kicked it. Then he recalled his own attempts at bubbles so far, and how his head still hurt from when Heart Throb had broken through it. Snips was probably right, he realized.

"If only we knew someone like that. Someone who is really good at magic and just recently had time clear up in her schedule," Snips said.

Snails looked at Snips. His friend seemed to have some idea, and Snails struggled to follow along. Snips gestured with his head ahead of them, and Snails looked in that direction, seeing the library. It occurred to him who Snips was thinking about. "You really think the Trixie would?"

"Trixie?" Snips shook his head. "That'd be awesome. But she'd probably be way too busy to help. I bet she's got shows lined up the world over."

"Oh, yeah. That makes sense." Snails wondered who else Snips might be thinking of. Miss Cheerilee was a teacher, but not a unicorn. Dinky was a unicorn, but she did not know much magic. That left... His brow furrowed as he thought as hard as he could, but no name sprung to mind.

"Miss Sparkle," Snips said.

"Miss Sparkle?" Snails echoed, looking around for the librarian pony.

"Well, sure, she was helping Heart Throb, right? And now she isn't, so she'll have time to help you! It's perfect!"

"Oh yeah. Good thinking, Snips," Snails said. The pair had barely resumed walking toward the library when Snails asked a question. "You really sure we can't get the Great and Powerful Trixie though? Cuz that would be awesome!"

"How would we even reach her? She could be anywhere. Trottingham, Saddle Arabia, maybe even a tour of Zebrica."

Snails pondered the question as they walked the rest of the way to the library. Failing to come up with a good idea, he considered Twilight Sparkle instead. "Guess we ask Miss Sparkle then. And maybe Spike can help too!"

Snails held the door open for Snips, then followed his friend into the library. Before he could take note of the piles of books stacked all over the library floor, he yelped in pain as a book beaned him in the back of the head.

"Hey, watch it!" Snips shouted, after casting a worried look at his friend. "Snails only just got out of the hospital for getting clocked in the head."

Twilight Sparkle popped up from behind a pile of books, her eyes bloodshot and a frazzled mane. "Oops. Sorry, boys. I didn't notice you come in. Guess I sort of got wrapped up in this research. Let me guess: latest book in the Crystal Crusader series?" Her horn glowed as she looked around the room, moving books around, before giving up with an exasperated sigh. "Now where did I put it? Spike! Have you seen the--, oh wait, Spike's not here."

"No, though that does--" Snips started to answer, but the no was all that Twilight was interested in.

"A book for school then?" Without waiting for a reply, she started pulling books off various shelves, naming them off as a pile grew before Snips. "History, math, Equestrian, biology, and art. I think that covers it." Without pausing, she disappeared back behind her own pile of books.

Snips stepped around the pile of books, a pile taller than him and teetering dangerously. "No, I--"

Twilight popped up again. "You've come to return a book then?" Twilight Sparkle raced over to her list of current checkouts. "No, that's not right, you don't have anything checked out right now." She paused to think, but just as Snips figured he might be able to get a few words in, she resumed talking. "Spike. You must be here to see Spike." She looked up the stairs toward her room and called for her assistant. "Spike! Snips and Snails are here for you!" She waited briefly for an answer, before smacking her forehead with a hoof. "Silly me. He's not here right now. Said he had to help Rarity with an emergency."

"Nope, not here for Spike," Snips said.

"Yeah, not for Spike," Snails said.

"Oh," the librarian said. Snails watched as Twilight Sparkle raised a forehoof and began to apparently check things off an imaginary checklist. Snails was not surprised. Having a checklist for what patrons of the library was certainly the type of thing she would do. And of course she checked it a second time. He waited patiently while she finished, while Snips waited less patiently beside him. Finally, with a puzzled look on her face, she asked, "So why are you here?"

"To ask you something, Miss Sparkle."

"Really? But that's not on the list. Are you sure you're not here to check out a book, return a book, or see Spike?"

"Nope, not here for that," Snails said.

"Okay, ask away then."

"What do you know about the Junior Training Corps Championships?" Snips asked.

"Not much off the tip of my horn," Twilight Sparkle said. "It was founded four hundred and sixty-three years ago by Silver Lance, who was Captain of the Guard at the time. The first winner was Golden Globe, a unicorn from Fillydelphia. He created a defensive globe with a radius of eight feet, a record that would stand for twenty-two years when it was broken by Long Pike. Interesting stallion, that Pike. When he was a captain, he once won a battle in a cornfield in thick fog by using local colts and fillies to run messages. One of those messengers was Tiberius Cork, who later went on to become a famous admiral, on whom the naval series you and Snails like is based. Does that answer your question?"

Twilight looked at Snips like she was waiting for him to be impressed. Snails definitely was impressed, though it was mostly by how much his definition of not knowing much differed from hers.

"Actually, we wanna know how to get in," Snips said, beating Snails to the question.

"Oh. Well, that's simple. For that, you need a sponsor. That's someone willing to put in a good word for you. A teacher from Celestia's School for Gifted Unicorns, a military officer with sufficient rank, or a member of a noble family all work. Now, if that is all, I can get back to--" She eyed Snips suspiciously. "You aren't thinking of entering the competition, are you?"


"Oh, good." She breathed a sigh of relief and took a step toward the books she had been reading.

"Snails is."

"Snails is what?"

"Going to enter," Snips said, matter of factly.

"And we was thinking you could teach me," Snails added.

"And you know ponies who could do that sponsoring thing, right? Like your brother?" Snips said.

Twilight's rump hit the ground like a sack of flour, and she looked them over. "Look, boys. I'm really happy to see that you want to learn some magic, and normally, I'd be more than happy to tutor you. I've been wanting to try my hoof at teaching for a while now, part of why I agreed to tutor that colt. But right now, I'm in the middle of a bit of a crisis, and I've got no free time." She gestured at all the piles of books.

"Told you we shoulda asked Trixie," Snails whispered to Snips.

"Anything we can help with? You know, so you'll have time?" Snips asked, not ready to give up so quickly.

"I don't know. Do you happen to have two thousand bits?" Twilight asked, somewhat snarkily. She sighed. "I'm sorry, boys. I shouldn't snap at you like that. I mean, it is not your fault. Well, actually, it sort of is, but not really. I don't blame you or anything, I mean." She paused, then continued. "Look, here's the deal. Several noble ponies from Canterlot had promised to donate some money for the library book fund. So I did what anyone would do: I ordered a few books right away. But when I sent Heart Throb away due to his behavior, the nobles suddenly cancelled their donations." She grabbed a pile of papers off a desk. "And so now I've got a bunch of bills and no bits in the budget to pay for them.

"I've been looking for solutions I can use, but I can't find anything that's legal and will get me the necessary bits in time. I think I'm going to have to go plead with the mayor for bits, and everyone will think I'm incompetent at keeping my books." She briefly giggled. "Librarian. Keeping books." She giggled again, as if what she said was funny for some reason, and in a way that only slightly sounded insane, before her head drooped.

"Oh, we can help with that!" Snips said.

"We can?" Snails said.

"Oh, sure. What Miss Sparkle needs is a fundraiser, like the one at school for the new teeter-totter."

"You really think you can make that much money?" Twilight Sparkle asked, eyes pleading that the answer would be yes.

"Oh, sure," Snips said, quite enthusiastically.

"Yup. No problem," Snails said, nodding his head rapidly.

"Oh thankyouthankyouthankyou. I've been so worried about this all day," Twilight exclaimed, hugging both colts repeatedly. "If you can take care of it then I'll gladly help you, Snails."

"We'll get right on it. You just start planning what'll be needed to get Snails ready, okay?" Snips said.

"Sounds like an excellent idea. I'll start making a checklist right away." Twilight Sparkle looked around the library, with its mostly empty shelves and scattered piles of books. "Well, maybe after I shelve a few books first."

As her horn glowed, Snails quickly vacated the library, lest another book try to brain him, or worse yet, she tried to talk them into helping. Snips was just as fast to flee. As the door shut, Snails looked at his friend, who was looking up at him.

"We're so screwed," Snips said.

"Yeah, screwed," Snails agreed.

Sweetie Belle limped slightly as she walked down the street with her two best friends. It was not anything serious, just a bit of a bruise from the latest round of crusading. Another unsuccessful round at that. Her flank was still blank, as were those of her companions, well, other than the mud that coated them, anyway.

It occurred to her that it was a good thing they were not going to her sister's. Rarity would absolutely freak out if they took one step inside the boutique in this state. The thought made Sweetie giggle. Dirt was not that big of a deal to her, certainly much better than tree sap. With how good they were getting at removing tree sap, it was a bit of a miracle that none of them had wound up with a cutie mark in tree sap removal. She giggled again.

"What's so funny?" Apple Bloom asked, still feeling down from the latest failure.

"I was just thinking about how my sister would look if we went to visit her right now," Sweetie Belle said.

"She'd probably be like all"-- Scootaloo dramatically held her hoof to her forehead before looking upwards. She completed the impersonation by dropping to the ground in a faint. Barely missing a step, the filly was back on her feet with a flutter of wing flaps. "Not like Rainbow Dash. Dash isn't afraid of no dirt."

"My sister's not afraid of dirt," Sweetie Belle protested. "It is just" --she held her head up high, nose in the air, and proudly continued-- "'A lady does not wallow in mud like a common pig.'"

From the corner of her eye, Sweetie Belle could see Apple Bloom eyeing her. Before Sweetie Belle could tell her that she meant nothing by that, certainly not that Applejack was not a lady, the mud covered farm filly poked her and said, "Oink-oink!" The three friends became a single laughing pile of filly and mud, from which arose accusations of "You're a pig!" and "Nu-uh, you are!", and plenty of "Oink!"

It was a happier trio that continued down the street afterwards. The aches, both emotional and physical, of the latest failure were forgotten, replaced by happy banter and plenty of "oinking" at startled passersby.

Sweetie Belle stopped as she saw him, bringing the group to a halt. Today had been Snails's first day back at school since the fight and the first time she had seen him since she had dropped off her card at the hospital. She had contemplated saying something to him, but the thought of doing so had made her feel strange. This is what ponies meant when they said they had butterflies in their stomach, she had realized. Her butterflies did not last long though, as they were smashed by something smacking into the back of her head. Looking back had revealed the source, a source that seemed determined to drill holes in her head with an intense glare.

Normally, Diamond Tiara would not have been sitting behind her, but since the dance, Silver Spoon had been sitting in the back row, as if that would somehow make her invisible. If Sweetie Belle had felt sorry for Silver Spoon and maybe thought that Diamond Tiara was not all bad for sticking with her friend, those feelings had evaporated throughout the course of the day.

It seemed that whenever Sweetie Belle's gaze lingered on him, something would happen. A crumpled piece of paper would be thrown into her mane. A book would 'accidentally' fall off a desk. A note would be passed to her to pass on to someone else. Miss Cheerilee would ask Sweetie Belle a question. And every time, the source of the interruption would be those two desks in the back. Sweetie Belle was not entirely sure how they were responsible for Miss Cheerilee asking her questions, but by the end of the day, she was sure they were.

Even at recess or during lunch, if Sweetie Belle moved toward Snails, Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon were there first. She could look around and not see them, take a single step in his direction, and they were there. It was as if they had been taking lessons from Pinkie Pie. It had all been rather infuriating.

But now he was here, along with Snips, standing in front of a sign that read "Cart Wash" in big, sloppily-written letters. She glanced around. No Diamond Tiara in sight. Tentatively, she took a step towards the pair, and glanced around again. She breathed a sigh of relief. No sign still. Slowly, then faster, she walked towards them.

"Hey, girls!" Snips said.

"Need a cart washed?" Snails asked.

"Why'd you ask that? They don't have a cart."

"Maybe they parked it nearby?"

"Oh yeah," Snips said, turning his attention back to the crusaders. "Got a cart that needs washing? We're trying to raise money for the library."

"What's the library need more bits for?" Apple Bloom asked.

"Books," both colts replied together. Either they had been asked the question quite a lot today or they had been practicing. Probably both, knowing the two of them. Still, it was noble of Snails to help raise money for the library. And for Snips as well, of course.

Sweetie Belle started to get an inkling of an idea. To her left, Sweetie Belle could see Scootaloo shaking her head, trying to tell her not to do what she was about to do. But she did it anyway. "Can we help?"

"I don't know. Can they?" said the voice Sweetie Belle least wanted to hear. Looking to her right, there stood Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon. Every. Single. Applebucking. Time, she silently swore through clenched teeth. Applebucking was not really a swear word, she knew, but it was the thought that counts, and right now, anything she had said would have counted as swearing.

"Well, they could probably make carts dirty, from the looks of it," Silver Spoon replied.

"Could probably make more bits washing the Tree Sap Trio than carts," Diamond Tiara put in. Silver Spoon nudged her, and she gasped. "Sorry, sweetie."

Sweetie Belle almost started to accept the apology out of habit, only to clamp her mouth shut and grind her teeth as Diamond Tiara gave Snails a quick hug. Snails was cute when he blushed.

"Well, probably true," Snips said. "We haven't had much luck with this idea."

"Only six bits so far," Snails said, before looking down and away in shame. "We spent that on ice cream," he admitted.

"You probably just need a different idea," Apple Bloom said. "If at first you don't succeed..."

"Fail, fail again?" Silver Spoon asked.

"That your dating plan?" Scootaloo asked, scoring a point on Silver Spoon.

"Certainly not mine," Diamond Tiara fired back, scooting close to Snails.

"Yeah, we know the truth about that plan, don't we?" Apple Bloom replied.

"It'll be the first plan you've seen that succeeds," Diamond Tiara said.

"Yeah, well, maybe we'll come up with a plan to help raise funds for the library," Apple Bloom said, jabbing Diamond Tiara with a mud covered hoof.

"Get your filthy farm pony hooves off me!" Diamond Tiara said, smacking Apple Bloom's hoof away.

"Her hooves are not filthy!" Sweetie Belle screeched in defense of her friend. Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon gave her a look that spoke volumes, if somepony were to write volumes consisting of only one sentence, repeated over and over.

"Gah! You know what I mean!" Sweetie Belle said.

"Well, in any case, there's no reason for you to help my boyfriend, because we're going to do that," Diamond Tiara said. Looking at Spoon, she continued, "What do you think, Sil? A fancy dinner for all the finest ponies in town? The ones with class."

"Nopony but the best." Silver Spoon looked at the crusaders. "And the cleanest. We'll make all the bits the library could need."

"They won't need it by then, because... " Sweetie Belle started.

"Because we'll have made more than enough in one week!" Scootaloo defiantly finished.

"We'll have the biggest hootenanny hoedown at the barn and invite the whole town!" Apple Bloom stated.

"Yeah, like anyone would want to go to your... thing when they could go to our event."

"They will too!" Apple Bloom replied.

"Yeah!" Sweetie Belle stated, stepping toward Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon. Her friends joined her on either side as the two sets of fillies glared, glowered, and even grimaced at each other.

"Stop it!" Snails yelled.

As all five filly heads swung toward Snails, Snips spoke up. "We're glad you wanna help, but the goal is to help the library, not show each other up."

"Uh-huh," Snails said, nodding his head. "We wanna help Miss Sparkle."

"But of course, sweetie," Diamond Tiara said, and Sweetie Belle could tell she had chosen that endearment just to annoy her, "so do we." She looked over at Silver Spoon. "Let them throw their little dance. We'll do the rest."

"Won't be needed, cuz we'll have made plenty," Apple Bloom said, glaring at Diamond Tiara.

Snails stepped between them, pushing the pair apart. "If you wanna help, help. No fighting," he said.

"He's right, girls," Sweetie Belle said. She smiled at Snails, who smiled back. "How many bits are you hoping to raise anyway?"

"Two thousand," Snails said sheepishly, causing the jaws of all five fillies to drop to the ground.

"Oh boy. We got some planning to do, girls" Sweetie Belle said, and even Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon nodded in agreement. She look at her friends and herself. "After we clean up."

Three clean fillies, or rather three fillies as clean as rambunctious foals could be, were hard at work in their clubhouse. It was a major brainstorming session, one that required team thinking. Apple Bloom and Scootaloo shared on the idea spot, while Sweetie Belle did her best not to fall from the hole in the ceiling where she sat, holding the lamp.

The Library Benefit Hootenanny Hoedown was a go. Apple Bloom's family had readily agreed to when they heard it was to benefit the library. It was the least they could do for all the times Twilight had helped them, Applejack had said, and Big Mac and Granny Smith had agreed. Big Mac had suggested they might want something more than just the dancing.

The session had been quite productive so far. From the initial apple fritters suggestion Big Mac had made, they had added a variety more: donated crafts, a raffle, a silent auction, and food. On top of that, they had several great ideas for promoting the event, from Sweetie's suggestion of flyers to Scootaloo's skywriting, which she insisted should be done by Rainbow Dash.

Sweetie Belle got the lamp ready as Scootaloo perked up. Unfortunately, Scootaloo returned to her thinking pose. Sweetie sighed. Apple Bloom suddenly sat upright though, holding a hoof up in the air, waiting for the lamp to be in place. It was a sure sign that she had a very good idea. Sweetie Belle cranked the lamp up to its second highest setting and lowered it into position.

"A dunk tank!" Apple Bloom proudly said.

"Good idea, Apple Bloom," Sweetie Belle said. "Add it to the list!"

"Do you suppose we could get Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon to volunteer for that?" Scootaloo asked. "'Cause if so, I need to practice my Cloudsdale Special." She mimed throwing a fastball.

"If they do, do you think we could get some ill-tempered sea bass?" Sweetie Belle asked.

"Sweetie!" both of her friends said, looking at her with surprise. She felt her cheeks warm in embarrassment, but then she shrugged. Everypony had their limits, and with what Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon had put her through today, was it any wonder she was reaching hers? Besides, it was not like she actually expected that they could get living ill-tempered sea bass. Although... it might not hurt to check with Sea Swirl, just in case. She giggled and shared the idea with her friends, and her friends joined in the laughter.

Afterwards, the crusaders deemed the brainstorming complete and moved on to getting other things ready, starting with the flyers.

"But, daddy!" Diamond Tiara whined.

"I said no. No means no," her father stated quite adamantly. Diamond Tiara pouted admirably, just in case no did not mean no, though she was quite certain that it did. "I'm sorry, princess. The cost of moving all the goods and shelving out of the store would simply be too much. Plus the need to store them somewhere safe, the potential for theft, and the loss of revenue. It would have a very big negative impact on the bottom line. And what do we say about the bottom line?" Rich asked his daughter.

"The bottom line is the top priority," Diamond Tiara dutifully recited.

"Very good." Filthy Rich smiled at his daughter. "But you know what might work? How about using Montague Hall in Canterlot? I know Laissez Faire was complaining about a cancellation. Something about a fiftieth wedding anniversary and a death, I believe. With the deposit and the ability to write it off as a charity event for taxes, I can probably get a good deal."

Diamond Tiara contemplated her dad's offer. To hold it in Canterlot might not be a bad idea. The truth was the only reason she had even asked him about holding the event at the Ponyville Rich's Barnyard Bargains was because the town lacked anything better suited. With pegasi to control the weather, it did not make much sense for a small town to build a large building just so that they could hold large events indoors.

The cost of the train ride to Canterlot might discourage some, but many ponies would probably jump at the chance to pretend they were sophisticated ponies. Especially if it was for a good cause. Showing up the blank flanks was definitely a good cause, even if most of the ponies going would be going for another reason. Montague Hall was a proper hall, with chandeliers and everything. Okay, it was not anything grand, but for her purposes, it was probably the perfect fit. She made up her mind.

"Okay, daddy!" She gave him a hug. "I love you." Without waiting for a response, she dashed off, slowing down long enough only to call out, "Off to tell Sil!" over her shoulder.

Once outside, under the night sky, her headlong rush slowed to a more dignified prance. A couple of times, when she was sure nopony was looking, she sprinted. The sprints only lasted as long as she was sure she would not be seen. Running like that down the street was for little fillies, barely out of diapers, not for dignified ponies like herself. Appearances mattered, after all.

That thought brought her to Snails and she stopped to ponder. It was not like there were better pickings around her age. Fillies were not her thing, and the colts all left things to be desired. Snips was too short. Truffle Shuffle wore an uncool hat. Rumble did not have an adorable goofy smile. Featherweight, that little job stealer, was not loyal. No, for each and every colt, there was a reason they were no better than Snails, and none of them had the added benefit of letting her needle those accursed walking natural disasters.

She shrugged as she decided that, in this one area, appearances did not matter. For now, she would continue to go out with Snails, to talk while he listened, and maybe even dance with him. That would remain the case at least as long as Sweetie Belle was still interested. After that, then she might have to reevaluate. Mind made up yet again, she started to walk.

Life had been simpler only a short while ago. She never used to question herself like this. She knew what she wanted and that was that. Ever since the dance, ever since that talk with Snips. And it was not just her. Silver Spoon was not quite herself either. It seemed things were only normal when they were teasing the blank flanks, and they wanted to be normal.

Diamond Tiara only made it a street further before a gathering of ponies by a bulletin posting board drew her attention. She normally did not care what other ponies did, unless it negatively impacted her, but they seemed excited about something. And since it would not do for her to be caught unaware of some social gathering, she shouldered her way through to see what they were looking at.

With a scowl, she tore down the paper that had their attention, shoving it inside her pack. A couple complained, but she told them there were no doubt other flyers posted elsewhere and they could go look at those. Leaving the grumbling ponies behind, she travelled the rest of the way to Silver Spoon's house.

"Did you get it?" Silver Spoon asked her, the moment she came into sight.

"No, my dad said we can't use the store," Diamond Tiara replied, doing her best to sound angry and disappointed. She could not maintain the facade for long however and quickly blurted out, "But he's going to get us Montague Hall. In Canterlot!"

Both fillies screeched happily, before doing a celebratory bump, bump, sugar lump, rump.

"How'd things go on your end?" Diamond Tiara asked.

Silver Spoon laid out some papers of pledges she had received so far from local business, as well as some new ideas she had thought of. She finished by declaring, "We'll absolutely knock the horseshoes off those blank flanks!"

"Speaking of..." Diamond Tiara reached into her pack, brought out the paper, and showed it to Silver Spoon. "Check this out, Sil. They have flyers out already."

Silver Spoon gave the paper a cursory glance. "Looks like they hoof drew the art."

"And so didn't get a cutie mark for it."

"For sure." Silver Spoon pointed a hoof at one corner. "Is that supposed to be a pony or a cat?"

"Either? Both?" Diamond Tiara giggled.

"Maybe it is supposed to be the barn where they are holding the barn dance."

Diamond Tiara squinted at the picture. It was possible, she supposed. Or maybe it was a cat square dancing. "Can you just imagine that? A bunch of ponies that need to be told how to dance, while the smartest one counts as high as they can between shouting instructions? What sort of losers go to that sort of thing?"

Silver Spoon started to laugh, then suddenly stopped. "Us." Her eyes sparkled as a sly smile spread across her face. "We're going."

"We are?" Diamond Tiara said. She thought about it for a bit. "Well, it would be amusing to make fun of dancers." She thought a little more. "And got to keep an eye on Sweetie to make sure she keeps her hooves off Snails. Plus it'll be fun to watch her pine for him."

"And I've got a plan," Silver Spoon said. "Do you, like, still have those pictures of Cheerilee?"

Diamond Tiara nodded. "I've been saving them for just the right thing."

Silver Spoon rubbed her hooves together. "I think I've come up with the perfect way to use them," she declared. "But we'll have to move fast. Not much time before this... shindig."

Diamond Tiara looked at Silver Spoon, taking in the gleam in her eyes and the mischievousness of her expression. How Diamond had missed that look. Whatever Silver Spoon had thought up, it was going to be good. Tears might even be shed, and it would not be theirs. Even more importantly, it looked like her BFF was back, really back. Not just for short periods while they teased some lesser pony, but full time. No more moping. No more hiding in the back of the class. And if Silver Spoon was back, there was hope for her.

Diamond Tiara plopped down on the bed, supporting her head with her forehooves. "Do tell."

Chapter 9

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"How about the mayor?" Sweetie Belle suggested.

Apple Bloom scanned down the list of volunteers for the dunk tank. "Already on the list. Along with her assistants."

Sweetie Belle pouted. That had been the fourth suggestion in a row that they had already asked. "There's got to be somepony we can get for the last two spots." She glanced at the list of names, hoping that the names of those who had volunteered might provide an idea, but no new names sprung to mind. Seeing Rarity's name on the list did make her smile though.

"This would be so much easier using the idea spot," Scootaloo said.

The other two fillies nodded in agreement. Unfortunately, it was lunchtime on Friday and leaving the school grounds midday was frowned upon, which was adult speak for "you'll get massively grounded if you do it, even if it was to try the best plan to get a cutie mark ever." If one could not get away to get one's cutie mark, then there was no way Miss Cheerilee would excuse them to plan the event.

Apple Bloom sighed. "Maybe Scootaloo is right. Ah reckon we can wait until after school and use the spot. Ah sure can't think of anypony else."

"Of course I'm right," Scootaloo said, taking the paper from Apple Bloom and moving it to the pile for things to deal with later. "Now, what else do we need?"

Apple Bloom picked up the to do pile and rifled through it. "Let's see... make sure we have enough tables for all the baked goods, set times for all the musicians, ask Snowflake if he'll work as bouncer for the hard cider garden, see if Lemon Drop can get us some more lemonade, follow up with Rumble to make sure his brother won't try to wiggle out of showing up, and—"

"Hire a better skywriter," Diamond Tiara said.

Just what they needed, thought Sweetie Belle. Tons of little things to take care of, plus things to double and triple check, and now an extra unwanted distraction. Still, it was not unexpected. The duo had been making a point all week of talking up their own event, while making fun of the efforts of the crusaders. Not that it was all bad.

"Hi, Snails," Sweetie Belle said, blushing slightly when he smiled back.

"Seriously, like, what is she trying to do anyway? Write a novel?" Silver Spoon asked.

Sweetie Belle looked up at the sky. Writing covered it, made of thin strands of cloud, reaching far up into the sky. The furthest parts were far enough away that she could not even read them. It looked like something one might see at the start of a science fiction movie. Definitely not like normal skywriting, which tended to say little and use big letters to say it.

"Oh," said Scootaloo, her face turning red as she looked up at the muddled mess in the sky. "Maybe I shouldn't have asked her to write quite so much."

Diamond Tiara sneered. "Yeah, like, just one letter. She could handle that. Probably."

"Tiara! You promised to be nice," Snails pleaded.

"They know I'm kidding, sweetie," Diamond Tiara said, lightly brushing her cheek against Snails's. "After all, they don't need me to tell them what a mess rain-brain is making." She turned her attention back to the crusaders, ignoring Scootaloo's glare and flaring nostrils. "Actually, we just came over here to let you know we'll be coming to your event, so it'll be, like, halfway respectable now."

"Yeah, like halfway," Silver Spoon echoed.

"Yes, Snails and I will no doubt have lots of fun" —Diamond Tiara squinted her eyes a bit as she read off the paper Apple Bloom had in front of her— "square dancing." Her nose scrunched in disgust, before she plastered on a sweet smile for Snails's benefit and continued. "We'll have lots of fun doing that, right, snookums?" She gave Snails a slight nuzzle, causing his cheeks to go crimson.

"And with you all busy with your thing to pay attention to the latest happenings, it looks like there's a new couple in our class, so now Diamond Tiara isn't, like, the only one with a boyfriend," Silver Spoon said, smiling cruelly at Sweetie Belle. "Check out Featherweight and Alula."

"I almost feel sorry for those that are alone," Diamond Tiara said, meeting Sweetie Belle's eyes. "All alone."

Sure enough, Sweetie Belle could see what Diamond Tiara was talking about. The two lay on the grass underneath a tree, close to each other. Another pony with somepony special, while she had nopony. No, it was worse than that. Nopony she could handle easily. it was that the pony she fancied was with somepony else, a filly she really, really, really disliked. And now, all Sunday, she would have to watch them together.

Of course, that had been the situation all week. Whenever she saw him of late, it seemed he was with her. And when he was not, well, she did not know where he was. She had kept an eye on all his usual haunts while going around town on event business, sometimes even taking a more roundabout route just to check, but a lot of the time he was just missing. She was not sure which was worse: seeing him with Diamond Tiara or not seeing him at all. Right now was not one of those times though. With Diamond Tiara was definitely worse, thanks to Diamond Tiara drawing attention to it, using the fact to needle Sweetie Belle every chance she had.

Sweetie looked down to hide her pain, only to find her eyes looking at the blank spots on the volunteer list for the dunk tank. An idea occurred, so simple, yet so brilliant. The type of thing Rarity would call elegant. A way to show Diamond Tiara that she was not the only one who could use Snails's presence for her own ends.

She looked up, not at Diamond Tiara, but at Snails, with her biggest smile. "We need a few more volunteers for the dunk tanks. Can we put you and Diamond Tiara down? For the library, of course."

"Sure!" Snails said. "Dunk tanks are sweet. Always wanted to try that."

Diamond Tiara was silent, and everyone turned to look at her. Sweetie Belle gave her most innocent smile, adding a couple of blinks for good measure, and asked, "You as well? Or you letting your boyfriend go at it alone?"

Diamond Tiara tried to put on a civil face, but Sweetie Belle could sense the fuming underneath it. The silence stretched and Sweetie Belle kept smiling, until at last Diamond Tiara broke. "Fine, whatever," she said. With a huff, she spun around. "Come on. Let's leave them to their planning. We got better things to do."

Sweetie Belle smiled as Diamond Tiara stormed off, Snails in tow. Silver Spoon started to follow as well, but Apple Bloom stopped her with a hoof. "Y'all best not be planning to mess with our event."

Silver Spoon laughed. "We have no plans... for you. You'll no doubt do just fine ruining it on your own, just like everything else you touch." And with that, she took off to catch up with Diamond Tiara.

Scootaloo watched them go, then turned to hoof bump Sweetie Belle. "That was awesome, Sweetie."

"It's about time you stood up for yourself," Apple Bloom said.

"I just got so mad with Diamond Tiara constantly parading Snails in front of me," Sweetie Belle said. With a satisfied smile, she wrote down the names on the list. "And we can check dunk tank volunteers off the list of things to do. What's next?"

"Um," Apple Bloom said while she scanned the list. "Let's see... We still need tables, eggs, the banner... Nothing we can take care of here at school though." She put the list down, then looked at Sweetie Belle. "They've got something planned. Ah just know it. Just the way Silver Spoon smiled..."

Scootaloo nodded. "Not their usual something either. Something nasty."

Sweetie Belle tried to recall Silver Spoon's expression, but without success. Instead, all she remembered was Alula resting her head on Featherweight. How she wished she had that, she thought. With a light sigh, she turned her head and watched Snails walking away alongside Diamond Tiara, grinning happily at something Diamond Tiara said.

"You gotta tell him," Scootaloo said. "Get right out there and say what you feel. That's what Dash would do." She shook her head in disbelief. "Can't believe I'm encouraging mushy stuff."

Sweetie Belle looked at her friends. "I just might tell him." Yes, the next time she found some time alone with him, she decided. Her eyes drifted back to Snails. Sunday, maybe, if Diamond Tiara ever left him alone at the event.

"Yeah, Sunday might be good," Apple Bloom said.

Sweetie Belle blinked. She had not realized she had spoken that last part aloud. Well, Sunday would not be bad, if the opportunity presented itself. But right now, there was something else that needed doing...

"Let's get some balls and practice throwing," Sweetie Belle suggested.

"Wow, Pinkie," Twilight Sparkle said. "I haven't seen so many ponies at Sweet Apple Acres since cider season. It looks like practically the entire town is here."

Truth be told, she herself would not have been here if Spike had not insisted she go. She had planned to reshelve all the books in the library under a new system she was sure would be point two percent more efficient than the current one. Spike had told her that she needed to go out, that the benefit was for her so she should be there, and that he and Snips, who he had volunteered for the task, were more than capable of handling the reshelving themselves. He had even brought out the big catapults, enlisting Pinkie Pie in the cause.

Pinkie looked the line up and down. "Uh-huh. Scootaloo asked me to tell all my friends, and I did just that. I told... Every. Single. One." With each of the last three words, her head dropped lower, as if she were tired, and her gait changed from her usual stotting to a slow stumbling walk. "I think that's the first time I almost regretted having so many friends. I didn't even think that was possible, and I guess it wasn't, since I didn't, but I came close, you know? I could barely talk afterwards. Everyone was all super-excited, eager to do something for you for all the times you've helped the town." She moved closer to Twilight and whispered conspiratorially into her ear, "And I think everyone might also be excited to have the second big party of the year, because well, second big party of the year. How could you not be excited about that?"

"Hey, Miss Sparkle!" a voice called out. Twilight looked over in its direction, only to be rewarded by the bright series of flashes of a camera as Featherweight took her picture. "For the school paper. Even though I'm the editor now, I like to stay in practice," he said, patting his camera.

His companion, the light yellow pegasus filly Alula, nudged him. "Come on, let's get inside. Why be out here when you could be taking pictures of me trying out all the cool stuff?" She gestured at the tents, booths, and tables set up ahead of them at the farm.

"Got to go," the young colt offered apologetically. "I'll probably send a reporter around for an interview later this week though, if that's alright?" Without waiting for an answer, he set off after Alula.

"Sure, that sounds fine," Twilight Sparkle replied, to his back. She looked around, at all the ponies already here, as well as those still coming. "I still can't believe how many ponies showed up."

"Yup, lots of ponies, Miss Sparkle," Snails said. Twilight looked over to see him standing alongside Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon.

"If you think this is impressive, Miss Sparkle, just wait until next week," Silver Spoon said.

"Everypony who is anypony is going to be at our event," added Diamond Tiara.

"It'll be, like, the best event ever," Silver Spoon said with a smile.

"We told you we could do it," Snails said, smiling proudly.

"Yes, yes you did, Snails. I never doubted it, not even for a second," Twilight Sparkle said, lightly tussling the colt's mane, then watching as the foals walked off, before shifting her attention to the throng of ponies. "I still can't believe it, Pinkie. All these ponies here to help me. I'm nothing special. Just a normal unicorn. But with so many ponies here, you'd think I was a princess."

"Hmmm," Pinkie said, whipping out a magnifying glass and carefully inspecting Twilight Sparkle's back.

"Pinkie, what are you doing?" Twilight asked.

"Just checking for wings. Can't be a real princess without wings, right?" Pinkie exclaimed. "Hold still for a little bit longer." She completed her examination. "Nope, none there. One hundred percent wing free, Pinkie Pie guaranteed. So I guess all these ponies are here because you are special, even if you aren't a princess. Well, that or they just really wanted to party, and who wouldn't want to do that?

"Besides, if you were a princess, then you'd have guards and schedules, not the type of schedules you have now, but ones other ponies write for you, and they wouldn't let you see me and our other friends except on special occasions and that would make me sad, and sad is not glad, even if they do rhyme, and I'd much rather be glad. So I'm glad all the ponies just want to party because you're special just the way you are."

Twilight Sparkle laughed and hugged Pinkie. "If I ever do somehow become a princess, Pinkie, the first thing I'll decree is that all of my friends will be free to see me whenever they want. And I'll still live in Ponyville, even if that means I have to build my very own palace here, stone by stone."

"You Pinkie-promise?" Pinkie asked.

Twilight nodded. "Pinkie-promise."

Pinkie Pie thought about that for a second, then gave a single nod of her head. "And if I become a princess, I'll do the same thing, right after I throw the biggest coronation party ever. Also, I can probably get you a good deal on rock for that palace," Pinkie said, and then she set about explaining the merits of different types of rocks and tiles depending on the function of a room. Twilight laughed, but joined in, always up for learning something new, not to mention a chance to apply her own bits of obscure knowledge.

Diamond Tiara sighed. She was looking at the two dunk tanks. Time was ticking inevitably down to when it would be her turn to sit in one of them. Her turn to sit and wait while other ponies threw things to drop her into water. Her. She was not looking forward to it. It was not how things were supposed to be. She should be the one throwing the ball, laughing as a poor hapless victim was dumped into the water, not the screeching victim.

Silver Spoon followed Diamond Tiara's gaze and nodded knowingly. "Just another thing those crusaders will answer for someday. And speaking of karmic justice, guess who is all alone?"

Diamond Tiara looked around, then spotted who Silver Spoon was referring to. "Time for phase two?"

"Like, totally. This is so going to rule. Come find me as soon as you're done with, well, you know..." Silver Spoon gestured toward the dunk tanks. "Lose the dweeb though, but I guess that goes without saying. And speaking of..."

Diamond Tiara looked over to see Snails coming her way. She waved, as if he had been gone a long time, and not just to use the bathroom. Were the Apples civilized enough to even have proper bathrooms? Probably not. To use an outhouse then. The thought made her shudder. Barely a step above just going outdoors. Just gross. One would think that with how often they rebuilt their barn, they would think to bring it up to modern standards. But then, one would also expect them to build it so that they did not have to rebuild it every other month.

Tiara reminded herself to think happy thoughts, only to have that possibility ruined by the sight of the dunk tanks. Still, at least some good things would happen today. Some justice a long time coming. Turning to her friend, she gave her a quick hug and said, "Go get him, Sil."

With Silver Spoon walking off, Diamond Tiara turned her attention back to the dunk tanks. "I'm really not looking forward to this," she said, as Snails moved up beside her.

"Why not? It'll be awesome!" Snails said. He pretended to toss up and buck a ball. "Woosh, clank, sploosh!" With the 'sploosh', he raised his forelegs into the air and his face lit up like a foal's at the sight of cake, cake with ice cream and a side of more ice cream. Diamond Tiara could not help but laugh.

"That's easy for you to say," she said, punching him gently in the shoulder, "but I hate being laughed at. I'm a winner. Not like these... these..." She gestured at the ponies all around them, only to stop when she saw the look on Snails's face.

He looked at her quite seriously, yet also quite hurt. "You think I'm a loser, don't you?"

Diamond Tiara almost said yes. If she told what she knew to be the truth, it would end this charade and she would be free. She could storm off and not have to be humiliated in the dunk tank. But something stopped her, and she was not sure what. She racked her brain trying to figure it out and came up with only one reasonable, rational explanation. Her breaking up with Snails would overshadow Silver Spoon's plan, and Silver Spoon needed the plan to go off without a hitch. That must be it. She had to carry on for Silver Spoon's sake.

She put on her best hurt look of her own, as if his accusation had hurt her feelings. "Look, you're totally the winningest pony I know. You, like, have to be. How else could you have a girlfriend like me?" She gazed into his eyes, raised her eyebrows and gave him a slight off-center smile. "Hmm?"

As she expected, it worked perfectly. The hurt expression disappeared, replaced by his goofy smile, when then morphed into a mischievous grin. "Prove it," he said playfully.


"Prove it. Have fun like me."

"How does getting... That doesn't make sense." She held up a hoof to silence Snails as he tried to explain. "No, nevermind. It doesn't matter." She held his head in both forehooves. "I will, for you. I'll have so much fun that even the ponies at your tank will throw their balls at me. You just wait and see."

"Ooh, Game on!" Snails said, bouncing happily toward the dunk tanks. Was she good or was she good? With a sigh, Diamond Tiara walked after him. For Silver Spoon, she thought.

At the tanks, the barker directed her to the one on the left. Rarity, the previous occupant, happily slid off the seat and greeted her. "Diamond Tiara darling, I don't suppose you know where Sweetie Belle is? I need to go murder her. Four times, she dunked me. Where'd she learn to throw so well? And just look at my mane, it's ruined! I just had it styled on Friday and now... Ruined! The jury will let me off, you think?"

Diamond Tiara looked at Rarity's mane. It was a soaked, hanging down, a far cry from Rarity's usual immaculately styled mane. It actually did not look bad. Quite fetching, just in a different way from how Rarity normally did. But Diamond Tiara was not feeling charitable at the moment. Quite the opposite. She nodded and said, "Oh, most definitely. About the only way it could look worse is if it were green."

"That bad?" Rarity asked, her white coat somehow managing to turn paler, her eyes wide open in alarm. "Quick, give me a towel. I've got to get home, fix this as much as possible!" The towel flew up, wrapping itself around Rarity's head. "Clear the way! Fashion emergency coming through!" Rarity called out. As Rarity ran off, Diamond Tiara could hear her muttering about the four times, plus something about getting her parents to withhold bits from Sweetie's allowance to pay for any treatments it would take to fix Rarity's mane.

Nothing helped a bad mood like spreading it around, Diamond Tiara had long ago learned, and it was still true. She was feeling better already. Carefully, Diamond Tiara placed her tiara in an out-of-the-way place on the ground. Her necklace she removed with equal care and placed within the tiara. From the other tank, she heard the sound of the seat dropping and a delighted yell from Snails, followed by water splashing. Her own fate shortly, and it dampened her mood. She sighed, then put on her best smile. She would survive this, like she survived anything else.

With a heave, she positioned herself onto her seat, suspended above the water. Just have fun, huh? She could do that. Or she could at least pretend. Get knocked into the water, then come up laughing. Repeat until the time was up. She took a few deep breaths. Now all she had to do was raise her hoof to the barker to let him know she was ready and—

She let out a yelp as her seat dropped out from under her and she plummeted into the water. She saw red as she launched herself upwards, ready to tear into the pony responsible, as well as the barker for letting someone throw a ball before she was ready, except there was nopony there. She looked around in confusion.

"Sorry," utter a grey wall-eyed pegasus, cheeks red in embarrassment, standing in front of Snails's tank. "I was trying to hit this one. Honest, I swear."

Snails burst out laughing at Diamond Tiara, and she turned her glare his way. "You said that would happen," he called out, pointing at her, "and it did!"

That confused her for a second, before she realized she had indeed said that. She found herself laughing at the absurdity of it. Still, it should have been Snails getting dunked, not her. But she could fix that.

She smiled at the embarrassed pegasus and said, "Well, go on, get him," and tossed her a wink. When the pegasus looked away to concentrate on her throw, she gestured to the unicorn barker, tapping her forehead and mouthing, "Dunk him." The barker caught her meaning, and as the pegasus threw, her eyes clenched shut, his horn lit up briefly and Snails's laughter cut off as he splashed into the water.

"I did it?" the pegasus asked, opening her eyes at the sound. "I did it!"

"You certainly did," Diamond said, splashing water at Snails as he surfaced. "That'll teach you to laugh at me," she giggled.

The display had drawn more ponies to the dunk tanks, eager to join in the fun. And not just ponies, even that cranky donkey, his wife in tow, wanted in on the action. Maybe for this, there did not have to be winners and losers. If everyone had a good time, maybe everyone won. Not how most of life worked, of course. But right here, right now, it seemed it did.

She could live with that, she decided, as she lifted herself back onto her seat.

Sweetie Belle sat, busy adding up the numbers they had from the event so far. As far as she could tell, they were on track to make over one thousand bits.

"Did you see her just now? Ah just dunked her, and she laughed. She acted just like she enjoyed it." Apple Bloom said to Sweetie Belle.

"Took half the fun out of it," Scootaloo said. "But that did still mean half the fun was in it. I got her good!"

"Do you suppose it might be real?" Sweetie Belle asked.

"You know there's no way the Diamond Tiara we know and really, really dislike would laugh at that. Scowl, swear, scream, or shout, sure. But laugh? Nu-uh. She was faking. It's the only thing that makes sense."

"She probably really hated it," Scootaloo added. "You missed your chance, Sweetie Belle, and after you practiced so hard."

"Someone had to start adding the figures," Sweetie Belle said, though she knew that was not the case. It could all be done later. The truth was she had not wanted to see Diamond Tiara and Snails together. And yet she had picked this spot, the spot that offered the best visibility of the event. "Besides, I spent my bits on Rarity. I'd better avoid her for a bit." Sweetie Belle giggled.

Apple Bloom thought it over, then nodded. "Probably a good idea."

"Probably? Most definitely a good idea." Scootaloo said. "As Fluttershy might say, 'You mess with the mane, you feel the pain!'" All three fillies laughed. The shy mare would not actually hurt anypony, of course, but sometimes, when she was trying to work her nerve up, she had a tendency to say a little rhyme just like that.

As the laughter died down, Sweetie Belle got serious. "I meant Diamond Tiara and Snails though." At her friend's confused look, she repeated her original question. "Could it be real?"

"No," both of her friends said emphatically.

"Not a chance," Scootaloo added for good measure. "And she'll hurt him in the end. There's no way a pony like her could be interested in—balloon animals."

"I agree. Balloon animals," Apple Bloom said.

It was Sweetie Belle's turn to be confused. "Balloon animals, what's that got to—"

"Hi, Snails!" Apple Bloom said.

"Heya, Apple Bloom, Sweetie Belle." Snails planted his feet and gave a good shake, sending water flying in every direction. Sweetie Belle ducked behind the table, just having enough time to see Scootaloo grab the nearest available thing and hide behind it. As soon as the water stopped, she popped back up, to reveal a soaked Apple Bloom glared at Scootaloo.

"Um... sorry?" offered Scootaloo taking a napkin from Sweetie Belle's table and dabbing Apple Bloom, with little effect.

Snails looked at the dripping Apple Bloom and barely suppressed a laugh. "Sorry. Guess I was still a little wet."

Apple Bloom looked at him and the trail of water that led back to the dump tanks. "Just a little?" It occurred to her that there was only a single trail of water. Snails was alone, without a single headpiece-wearing, insult spewing, pink menace along. This was the chance she had been waiting for all day.

"Where's Diamond Tiara?" Sweetie Belle asked, trying to sound as innocent as possible.

"She had to go talk to Silver Spoon about some important pony stuff," Snails replied.

"And she sent you off?" Apple Bloom asked. "You're not important?"

"I don't mind. Sometimes she just needs girl time, she says," Snails said. "Besides, I wanted to say hi to Sweetie. Haven't had much chance to hang with you since the lessons." He looked over at the pile of papers Sweetie was sorting. "Whatcha doing?"

"I was just adding up some numbers, actually, if you want to come over here and see?" Sweetie Belle said. She reached over and stopped Apple Bloom, stopping her from moving around the table. "You should go dry off, Apple Bloom. Don't want to get all the paper wet. And then go check the thing. You know, at the place. With Scootaloo," Sweetie Belle hinted.

"Huh?" said Apple Bloom, her head tilted.

"Oh, yeah. The thing," Scootaloo said, catching on. "And we gotta go to... um... there, right, Apple Bloom?"

"What are you talking about? Ah don't got no—" A sharp nudge from Scootaloo got Apple Bloom's attention, and Scootaloo gestured towards Snails and Sweetie Belle with her head. "Oh, that thing. How could Ah forget that? Got important pony stuff too, yup. That's us, off to do important stuff," Apple Bloom said, doing a better job at lying than her sister usually did, but not by much. "Come on, Scootaloo. Let's go! To the place."

Diamond Tiara gave herself another good toweling, for all the good it did. She should have thought to bring her own towel. Instead, she had been forced to use the towels provided. Towels that were still damp from being used earlier. Towels that were probably Apple towels. She shuddered with revulsion. Who knew what sort of infectious diseases the towel might have gotten from being used around the farm, something from some cow, sheep, or apple tree?

She held the towel as far away from herself as she could and dropped it. The first thing she was going to do when she got home was take a shower, immediately followed by a long bath. And then she was going to dry herself off with her own towels. Her glorious, super-absorbent towels imported from some place that did not matter enough for her to remember the name but they did make the best towels. Just the thought of it made her feel cleaner and dryer.

She carefully placed her tiara back on her head, knowing from lots of practice how to align it perfectly. Next, she picked up her necklace. It had gotten wet, and so she gently wiped the water off the silver, before slipping it around her neck. Properly adorned, she stepped out and looked for Silver Spoon.

Her tiara flew from her head and she spun around as a streak of pale yellow raced past her, sobbing. With a scowl, she glared at the rapidly disappearing filly, before she scooping up her precious tiara and placing it back in its rightful place. Then she looked in the direction the streak had come from. Sure enough, there was Silver Spoon, standing next to Featherweight.

Her friend was laughing gleefully. The plan had worked perfectly, from the looks of it. After one last feel to make sure her tiara was in its proper place, Diamond Tiara headed over to her friend. Featherweight looked to be on the verge of crying. Snails would want to help him, make him feel better. He would not approve of what they were doing. But he was not here, was he? Besides, this was nothing more than Featherweight deserved, Diamond Tiara assured herself.

"Was... was that really necessary?" Featherweight asked, as Diamond Tiara joined her friend and they began to circle the colt, forcing him to constantly turn to look at them.

"That? For sure," Silver Spoon said. "That was karma."

"Oh. I thought it was the two of you blackmailing me into asking Alula out, and then when I do, coming up to me in the middle of our date and telling me to break up with her," Featherweight said, sarcasm dripping off every word.

"Exactly. Karma," Diamond Tiara said. "You took my job at the paper. Even though those articles were as much your doing as mine. More so, even." She felt the nagging feeling that Snails would not approve rise again, but she ruthlessly crushed it. Featherweight deserved this. Those articles were not her fault. They were the fault of the crusaders and Featherweight. All she had wanted to do was make the paper successful. It should have been Featherweight covered in ink, not her.

"And Alula shouldn't have stolen my date. Now she knows what it feels like," Silver Spoon said.

Diamond Tiara nodded. Alula did deserve it, she told herself, driving the nagging feeling further down. Alula was supposed to be Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon's friend, and she had stolen Silver Spoon's date. That was unacceptable. She had to be taught a lesson. And then, in a couple of weeks, they could forgive her, and they would all be friends again. Better friends than ever. They would probably even laugh about all this at some point.

"I really liked her, you know," Featherweight said, "and now she'll never want to talk to me again."

"Well, you should have thought about that before you took Tiara's job," Silver Spoon said. "Besides, you wouldn't even have asked her out if not for us, so really, you got off easy. You both just got what you deserved. Karma."

"Two parasprites, one stone," Diamond Tiara said with a laugh. "And just in case you think you can get back at us for this, forget it. If you do, next time we won't be nearly as nice."

Silver Spoon stopped her circling. "Incoming blank flanks," she warned. "Remember, you're my special somepony now. Make this look good if you don't want those pictures you took of Miss Cheerilee to turn up. Unless you'd rather we give them to her?"

Featherweight glared at her for a second, before slightly lowering his head with a sigh, defeated. He wiped away a tear. Silver Spoon smiled and moved closer to him, her head close to his, as if she was listening to something he was whispering to her. She laughed loudly, a laugh that was obviously fake to Diamond Tiara, then turned to acknowledge the two newcomers. "Oh hi, Apple Bloom and Scootaloo. Featherweight was just telling us about how you reporters nearly managed to get lost at sea while interviewing Sea Swirl. All the good stuff that didn't make the article."

They had actually gotten that information out of him earlier in the week, when they had first told him to ask Alula out, but the blank flanks would not know that. Diamond Tiara smiled and joined in. "I guess that brings a new meaning to the phrase 'drowning in paperwork', huh, Sil?"

"You're just jealous you didn't get to ride in a submarine," Apple Bloom said.

"Whatever. If Sil and I ever go on a submarine, we'll be smart enough to pick one that doesn't wind up underwater," Diamond Tiara retorted.

"Submarines are supposed to go underwater, you dodo," Scootaloo said.

"Yeah, well... whatever," Diamond Tiara sputtered. "You know what we meant."

"Speaking of rides, Featherweight was just going to take me on a hay wagon ride." Silver Spoon asked, brushing up against him, before turning back to the crusaders. "It's been swell talking to you both. That's a water joke, by the way, though you'll probably need a dictionary to understand."

Apple Bloom looked shocked at Featherweight. "But... I thought you and Alula..."

"He traded up," Silver Spoon answered, with a swish of her tail. "Come on, Feather, let's go." She turned and walked off. Featherweight followed after, hesitantly at first, then breaking into a quick run to catch up.

"I'm confused," Apple Bloom said.

"Nothing new there," Diamond Tiara replied. "Now... Why are you here?"

Scootaloo and Apple Bloom looked at each other.

"Well, um..." Scootaloo said and stopped.

"We, uh, wanted to thank you for volunteering for the dunk tank. It was nice of you to volunteer," Apple Bloom said. "So, um, thanks." Both Scootaloo and Apple Bloom put on a cheery smile and nodded their heads vigorously.

"And, um... to ask how things were going for your thing. If you needed any help?" Scootaloo asked.

"You girls, like, totally wouldn't come over here just for that," Diamond Tiara said. "What are you up to?"

She looked at the pair suspiciously, trying to discern their thoughts. She tried to look around them to the left, but the pair moved left. A try to the right led to the pair moving right. She tilted her head slightly, while they beamed wide, obviously guilty smiles at her. A quick head bob to the left had the pair moving left, but rather than continuing in that direction, Diamond Tiara reared up to look over the pair.

By the entrance, she could see Snails and Sweetie Belle. With a triumphant smile, she dropped back to all fours. "You know, you'd figure that you girls would learn. You may be able to fool others with your cute and innocent looks, but not me. I totally see through your lies every time."

With that, she brushed past them, using her tail to swat Apple Bloom as she passed. Not that she was worried about losing Snails. Especially not to Sweetie Belle. And even if that did happen, well, she had had plenty of fun with the crusaders already. It was not like she cared. But there was no reason to end the game just yet. There was more fun to be had, and so she quickened her step.

"Well, we see through yours too," Scootaloo called out after her. Diamond Tiara snorted at the lateness and lameness of the retort.

"Yeah!" added Apple Bloom, adding her own deep thoughts to the comment. Diamond Tiara just rolled her eyes.

Snails looked at the chest full of bits. "You're amazing!" Snails exclaimed.

Sweetie Belle felt her cheeks warm at his compliment. "You really think I'm amazing?"

"Oh yeah. Just look at all this..." Snails swept a foreleg around, at all the tents, tables, and booths, plus all the ponies milling around. "And the dunk tank. Sweet! You three are amazing." The realization that he'd been talking about all three of them, not just her, hit hard. She quickly looked away.

"Something wrong?" Snails asked.

"Nothing. Nothing is wrong." She sighed. No, this was her chance. She was going to tell him. No backing off. She gathered her courage, lifting her head back up, and rested a hoof on his cheek. "There's just something I've been wanting to say."

Snails waited patiently, while she gathered her thoughts. Behind him, she could see Diamond Tiara break past her friends. There was still time though before she could work her way through the crowd to here. There was time enough. All she had to do was just say it.

Sweetie Belle gazed into Snails's eyes, feeling the weight of the moment upon her. Right here, right now, her life could go one of two ways, based upon what she did. She opened her mouth and spoke. "I think we'll make over one thousand bits today. Maybe as much as eleven-hundred"

And just like that, the moment was past. She had made her choice. Apple Bloom had called Scootaloo a chicken once, but Scootaloo was not a chicken, Sweetie Belle knew. Scootaloo would have said what she felt. Not like her.

"Wow!" Snails said, impressed, and completely oblivious to what could have, what almost had, happened. "That's, like, um... well, lots! Miss Sparkle will be so happy."

"Yeah. Happy," Sweetie Belle said, watching Diamond Tiara for a second, before turning away.

"What's going on here?" Diamond Tiara asked.

Snails practically bounced into the air as he turned around. "Di! Did you hear? Sweetie Belle says they've probably made over one thousand bits today," Snails said. "Isn't that awesome?"

"Hmm. We'll make even more next weekend, just wait and see." Diamond Tiara looked at Sweetie Belle suspiciously. "Is that all you were talking about?"

"Yes, just that," Sweetie Belle said, nodding her head. "Square dancing is about to begin. I believe you wanted to try that."

"Sweet!" Snails exclaimed. "How do squares dance though?"

Diamond Tiara gave Sweetie Belle another suspicious look, before turning her attention back to Snails. "I'm not sure actually. I only know real dancing, but I'm sure we can figure it out. After all, Apples can do it."

Sweetie Belle cursed herself silently, as she watched Snails walk off beside Diamond Tiara. If only she had been braver. She had almost told him. Next time. Next time, for sure. As long as she did not chicken out again. With a sob, she shut the chest full of bits and curled up underneath the table.

Chapter 10

View Online

Diamond Tiara flipped through the pages of the magazine without paying much attention to the contents. She was not even really sure what magazine it was. When she had gotten to Silver Spoon's home, she had picked one at random. Her mind was on other things.

"Sil? Do you think we were too harsh on Alula?" Diamond Tiara asked.

Silver Spoon looked up from the magazine she was reading, a look of slight puzzlement on her face. "Of course not. She like totally stole my date, and now I stole hers. How does it get more fair than that?"

"Yeah, that is totally fair, I guess," Diamond Tiara said.

Silver Spoon's look was still puzzled. "What's gotten into you, Diamond? It's not like you to second guess yourself."

"I guess I'm just remembering when we first met her. Goddess, she was tragic."

"That mane! And the way she talked." Silver Spoon giggled at the memories.

Diamond Tiara nodded and said, "And we felt so sorry for her we decided to make her our special project. Showed her who was worth knowing and who wasn't, what clothes to wear and when, and so on. We totally saved her from being a complete loser."

"And then she, like, betrayed us," Silver Spoon said. "So not cool."

"Yeah, but she is still our friend, right? Shouldn't we take it a little easier on her?"

"Of course she is, and of course we shouldn't. Two weeks, Diamond. That's what we agreed on."

Diamond Tiara raised her forehooves in surrender. "Okay, okay, you win. The full two weeks it is."

"I'll be happy when it is over, actually. I miss shopping with Alula and Featherweight is no fun to hang around at all. About the only time he perks up is when talking about pictures, and then it is all lighting this and filter that. Booooring." Silver Spoon sighed. "Might just cut him loose early. I don't know how you've put up with the dweeb for so long."

"Snails isn't a dweeb." At Silver Spoon's incredulous look, Diamond Tiara tried to explain. "Sure, he's about as bright as a moonless night and about as attractive as a sack of apples. And he's always playing in the mud, slime, or other gross stuff. And there's the fact that he comes from the poor side of town." Diamond Tiara stopped. "Okay, he's a dweeb. But he's my dweeb. He actually wants to spend time with me, so maybe that's why it isn't that bad."

Silver Spoon took off her glasses, pointedly cleaned them, then put them back on and looked at Diamond Tiara. "Oh my goddess. Tell me you're not falling for him."

"What? No way." Diamond Tiara shook her head hard enough that her tiara nearly flew off.

"You are. You're like totally falling for him," Silver Spoon said, teasing her friend. "You know you can tell me anything, right? And I won't let it come between us. So if you're falling for him, just admit it."

"As if. I'd sooner fall for—" It was at this point that she would usually say Snails, except she was dating Snails. "He was the one we put last on our list, huh?" Silver Spoon nodded, with a grin. "Ah, I got it! Apple Bloom. I'd sooner fall for Apple Bloom."

Silver Spoon giggled. "I don't know. You two would look kind of cute together."

Diamond Tiara pondered that. Snails at her side, but older, no longer sporting his lanky body. Nicely dressed, of course, in a crisp suit or uniform. He'd look goofy, almost handsome, but cute? And he would still be Snails. The uniform would definitely would not be an officers. "Us, cute?" she asked Silver Spoon.

"Well, think about it. I mean, you both are totally into headgear." Diamond Tiara gave her a confused look. "Your tiara, her bow..." Silver Spoon explained.

Right, she was not talking about Snails. Diamond Tiara laughed. "Not even if she were adopted by Blueblood himself and became the toast of Canterlot." An image came to her mind, of Apple Bloom at a party full of nobles. "Could you just imagine her at the Grand Galloping Gala? She'd probably show up in galoshes or something."

"Oh my. That would be such a disaster." A gleam shone in Silver Spoon's eye. "We'll have to be sure to get her a ticket to one when we're grown up. It'd be so funny."

"Do you suppose that's what happened two years ago?" Diamond Tiara asked. That gala, ruined by six undisclosed mares, was a major topic every gala since then, and no doubt would be for decades to come.

Silver Spoon thought it over. "It'd certainly explain it. Wonder if it was one pony that invited them all, or if different ponies all had the same idea. All the work put into such a big event, ruined in the blink of an eye. So maybe we shouldn't arrange for her to get a ticket."

"Speaking of big events, we need to finish planning," Diamond Tiara said, taking advantage of the opportunity to switch topics.

"Why? The event planner should be taking care of everything. That's what we hired him for, after all," Silver Spoon said.

"I'm still surprised he plans parties. I thought he was just a motivational speaker," Diamond Tiara said.

"Apparently he does that when the weather is nice and warm, but during the winter, he runs a catering and event planning business," Silver Spoon explained.

"Still a bit strange, but oh well. Can't expect a monster to be normal, I guess. Anyway... I'm talking about the important stuff." Diamond Tiara waited for Silver Spoon to catch on, but no luck. "We need to decide what we're going to wear."

"Oh. I had a thought about that earlier. I'm thinking... tuxedos, top hats, and canes. Look at this." Silver Spoon held up the magazine she was reading. The page featured pictures from a fashion show in Manehatten, and one of them was of a model in a tuxedo, or rather, a fashion show version of one, spruced up beyond all reasonable levels.

Diamond Tiara thought it over. Not her typical fashion choice, but it would work. Maybe something in blue. And they would really stand out as the only fillies in suits. They would need canes though, for sure. "That would be so cool," she said. "Let's do it."

Snails opened the door of his home and looked outside with dismay. Rain poured down, almost in solid waves. If he stepped outside, he'd be drenched in seconds. Why did the weather team have to pick now to make it rain? Sure, the rain was supposed to have started earlier today, but it had not, which was probably why it was raining so hard now. They were making up for lost time. But still, he thought, they could have waited just a bit longer, since they were late already anyway.

Ordinarily, the rain would not bother him. He would have happily raced around outside, jumping from puddle to puddle, seeing how big of a splash he could make, until he got tired. Then, when he returned home, one his parents would greet him at the door with a towel to wrap around him, followed by a nice cup of hot chocolate in front of fireplace.

Today though, he was not going outside to play. He was going to Rarity's boutique to see if she could fix up the suit she had made him. The suit was packed in his saddlebags, and while that would protect them from ordinary rain, it would not from this. Luckily, that is why umbrellas existed. Well, that and to provide shade when it was too sunny, but that was a different type of umbrella, and one mostly used by fancy ponies, not regular ones.

No, what he needed was his umbrella which should have been right next to the door. A quick search did not reveal it, though it did leave shoes, boots, coats, and scarves scattered around the hall. He sat down to think.

Maybe he had left it at school? But if so, he would get soaked going there, so that was no good. Unless maybe he ran really fast? Like magically fast. There was just one problem with that. He did not know magic to run fast. He suddenly brightened, remembering what magic he did know: the magic Twilight Sparkle had been helping him with. A shield spell would keep the pack and the suit within nice and dry.

He concentrated like Twilight Sparkle had taught him, feeling the magic gather, then unleashed it. A small, yellowish-green dome appeared over his pack. He waited, half expecting it to wink out of existence, but it did not. It was stable. He had done it. Now his pack would stay dry. Proudly, he gave himself a celebratory hoof pump and took a step forward.

Or rather, he tried to take a step forward, as he was held in place by the pack, which was determined to stay right where it was. He looked back perplexed, before the realization hit him. He smacked himself on head for forgetting. Twilight Sparkle had told him repeatedly that shields had to be anchored to inanimate things, and the anchor held both the shield and object in place. So much for his bright idea. With a sigh, he dispelled the shield.

"Mom? Where's my umbrella?" he shouted.

"Is it by the door, where it should be?" came the reply.

"No," Snails called back.

His mom's head popped around the corner, by the living room. "Oh, well, did you check your room? Maybe you left it there when you came home from school."

"Oh yeah." He really should have thought to check there first, before asking. "Thanks, mom."

He raced to his room, looking at the piles of clothes and toys, looking for where he had dumped his stuff when he had returned from school. With a cry of joy, he spotted his umbrella and scooped it up. Umbrella in mouth, he headed back to the door, stopping just long enough to hug his mother before stepping out into the rain.

Sweetie Belle looked up from her homework at the knock on the door of the guest room. "Who's there?" she asked.

"It's me," came the reply and then, after a short pause, "uh, Snails".

"Just a minute." She bounced up and quickly tidied up the room, mostly by stuffing items into the closet, before rushing back to the desk. She did her best to look nonchalant, as if she had not even gotten up. "Okay, come in."

She glanced down at her desk and nearly gasped. She had forgotten to hide the picture she had been drawing of him walking away from a crying Diamond Tiara. "Like the room?" she asked.

As he looked around at the guest room her sister kept, she quickly stuffed her drawing into a pile of other papers, then returned to trying to look normal, with a big smile on her face.

"It's nice," he said. "Nicer than my room. Could use some posters of pirates and soldiers though."

"What brings you here?" Her hopes soared at the thought that maybe he was here to see her, to tell her Diamond Tiara had broken up with him.

"Your sister said I could wait here with you while she fixes my suit. Whatcha doing?" Snails asked. And hopes crashed back down.

"Just getting my homework out of the way. Me, Scootaloo, and Apple Bloom have some big plans for the weekend. Oh, and we got the total for the fundraiser. We made," she paused for dramatic effect, "thirteen hundred and two bits."

"Wow. That's amazing. Miss Sparkle will be so happy to hear that," Snails said, clapping enthusiastically.

"Yup," said Sweetie Belle. "You have any big plans for the weekend?"

"I'm going to garden!" Snails said excitedly. "I've never done that before. Maybe I can find some cool bugs to show to Snips."

"Rats. I was sort of thinking that, if you didn't, maybe you could adventure with us."

"Oh," said Snails, disappointed. "I would if I could, but Diamond's dad wants her to weed the garden and I said I'd help."

"You mean she asked you to help, no?" Sweetie Belle asked.

"Maybe. But I'm happy to help."

"Do you ever do anything you want to do?" At his slightly confused look, she continued. "Is it always what she wants? You do so much for her. What does she give?"

"She lets me call her 'Di'."

"Nopony calls her that," Sweetie Belle said.

"Except me," Snails said, beaming from ear to ear. "Also, she got me the suit. And, ooh, she made me a card, and then—"

"She made you a card? You sure she didn't just buy it?"

"Hoofdrawn. It has a crayon picture of me by the hospital."

Sweetie Belle's eyes shot open. Diamond Tiara would not have, would she? "Did... did it have Snips as well? And a big heart inside?"

"Yup. That's the one. You saw it?" Snails asked.

"That was my card. I made that!" Sweetie Belle shouted, standing on up on her rear hooves, forelegs on her desk. "She... she must have stolen it."

"Nu-uh. She made it." Snails stomped a hoof down for emphasis. "I know she did. She signed it and everything. I keep it next to my bed," Snails said, dreamily.

"No, I made it. I made it in my room, with Scootaloo and Apple Bloom there. Just ask them. They'll tell you!" Sweetie Belle watched as Snails's face seemed doubtful for a second, but then hardened.

"No," he said. He pointed a hoof at her. "This is just more of your fighting. You guys are always fighting." Snails rushed to the door, stopping just short. "Snips warned me there was things going on between you guys. Well, I like Di and she likes me so just leave us alone!" With that, he slammed the door shut.

Sweetie Belle sat staring at the door as a picture hit the ground, knocked loose from the wall by the ferocity of the slammed door. She ignored it. It did not matter. Snails believed she had lied to him, all because that... that stuck-up, colt-stealing card-thief. She slammed her hoof down hard. A line had been crossed. This she would not allow to stand.

Rarity opened the door cautiously and peeked in. "Are you alright? I heard all the shouting and Snails just rushed out of here without even taking his umbrella or his suit. He's going to get soaked. What was going on up here?"

Sweetie Belle looked up at her sister, with an intensity that made her sister take a step back. "Crafting."

"Why thank you," Diamond Tiara said, giving a slight curtsy to the umpteenth pony who complimented how she and Silver Spoon looked. "You look quite fetching yourself, Mayor Mare" Diamond Tiara said with a smile and a wink, though what she was thinking was that the mayor looked like a dog had played fetch with the dress for a few hours. Best not to say that sort of thing out loud to a pony of importance though, at least not until later when it was just Silver Spoon and her. The mayor blushed and moved on inside.

She checked her reflection in a nearby window. The decision to wear suits had definitely been the right one, even if the rather last minute nature of the decision had meant a scramble to pull it all together. But they had, and now they looked fabulous. She gave her cane a little twirl.

"Time to go inside?" Silver Spoon asked. "I'm getting hungry."

Diamond Tiara rested a hoof on her cane and pretended to ponder, but a growl from her stomach gave her away, to her friend's amusement. She grinned. "Okay. Last one to the table is a blank flank!"

The two friends raced inside, zig-zagging between guests and nearly wiping out at the first corner. A few ponies warned them to be careful as they raced by, but the fillies ignored them. This was their night and no spoilsport was going to ruin it. Approaching the table, Diamond Tiara slowed down, intending to let Silver Spoon win, only to find Silver Spoon doing the same thing. That brought both fillies to a stop, and they shrugged at each other, giggled, and did their signature move.

"Sure is big," Silver Spoon said, looking around the room.

Diamond Tiara took it in as well. The lines of tables, the open dance area, and the stage at the far end, currently occupied by a quartet of musicians. And everypony who was anypony in Ponyville, all dressed in their best. Well, except for Snails, who for some reason was wearing something that looked about a decade out of date, and Featherweight, who had his ever-present camera dangling around his neck and seemed more interested in moping than enjoying the opportunity to hang with Silver Spoon.

"They're quite good," Diamond Tiara said, eyeing the stage, "if, you know, you like that sort of old pony music."

"Yeah. They've totally played the Grand Galloping Gala and everything."

As the musicians finished their song, everypony applauded softly. A well muscled minotaur strode up the microphone. He held up a large bell and hit it, the tone ringing loud and clear. With a voice that boomed at near royal Canterlot voice levels, he called out, "When the bell does chime, it's dinner time!" With a cheer, ponies headed toward their seats, while goats streamed into the room, pushing and pulling carts laden with food.

"Just in time," Diamond Tiara said, sliding into her seat. "Hi, daddy. Hi, Snails."

"So what's all for dinner?" Silver Spoon's father asked.

"Well, there's... stuff, and uhm, things," Silver Spoon answered. "Okay, I don't remember. We let the planner handle all that stuff."

"It should be so good, though. He got chef Gustave Le Grande," Diamond Tiara said.

"Uh-huh, he's like all famous and stuff," Silver Spoon said. "Won some big contest last year and everything."

A goat waiter brought by the first course, placing it in the center of the table with a flourish. It had some special name in fancy, but all Diamond Tiara remembered was that it was some form of artichoke tartlet. Snails reached out, took one, and shoved the whole thing into his mouth, chewing with great vigor. With an audible gulp, he swallowed and reached out for another. Before he could get it into his mouth, he found his progress stopped by Diamond Tiara's hoof.

"Snails! You're supposed to take small bites. To savor the flavors. Like this," Diamond Tiara said. She reached out and took a tartlet from the plate, taking a small bite from it. "Mmm. Delicious."

"But everything is so small," Snails pointed out.

"That's the way it always is at fancy places," Silver Spoon explained. "It isn't about the size, but about the care taken in making the food. They totally use the finest stuff and the most talented ponies in Equestria."

"That's just silly. Why pay more for less?" Snails asked.

"I couldn't agree more, Snails," Filthy Rich said, as he stuck an entire one in his mouth and swallowed. "That's one of the key principles I've used to build Rich's Barnyard Bargains into a nationwide chain. It was even our slogan for a couple of years."

"Daddy! You're not helping," Diamond Tiara complained. She adored him, but there were some things he just did not understand. She had once spent several hours trying to explain to him that some things were best because not everyone could have them, without any luck. Getting him to appreciate fine food had not gone any better.

"I'm sorry, princess, but give me a good ol', filling beet burger with a side of hay fries over most of what they serve in fancy places." He eyed the last tartlet left on the plate. "Although these are quite good," he said, reaching for it.

Diamond Tiara slapped his hoof away. "Remember what the doctor said about being careful how much you eat."

"What's that doctor know anyway?" he grumbled, though he did not take the last one. Instead, he watched enviously as Silver Spoon's father did.

The goat waiters cleared away one course to make room for the next, and then again, as the dinner went on. Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon did their best to educate their family and dates as to the proper way to behave. Which fork, which spoon, the proper time between bites. Their parents mostly ignored it, being quite used to their daughters' antics, instead spending their time chatting. Their conversations inevitably drifted toward business. Snails did his best to learn, but questioned the why of it all. Featherweight, meanwhile, ate and said little, preferring to spend his time sullenly shuffling food around his plate.

At last, dessert was served, Gustave's signature exceptionally exquisite éclairs. Snails looked at the silverware, not sure which one would be appropriate. At last, he shrugged and reached for a soup spoon.

"You're hopeless, you know?" Diamond Tiara said, pointing him toward the correct fork.

"I know," Snails said, blushing slightly as he grinned. But he swapped implements, though only after taking time to compare the two to see the differences between them.

Diamond Tiara gave him a smile. He might not know now, and she might have to remind him a few times, okay, a whole lot of times before he got it, but at least he tried, which was more than some could say. She reached over and cut her father's dessert, moving half of it over to her own plate. She cut off his protest. "Daddy, you know the doctor said you had to watch what you eat."

"Funny how you always bring that up around dessert and never when we're having stewed apples," Filthy Rich replied.

Diamond Tiara smiled as she sliced the purloined part into two parts, offering half to Snails. "That's because dessert is the least healthy part, daddy. I'm only doing this because I love you so much." Diamond Tiara took a bit of her newly acquired dessert, savoring the flavor.

"Now how can I refute such sound logic and selfless sacrifice?" Filthy Rich asked the other adults at the table with a laugh.

Applejack stood off to the side, watching the stage as the bachelorette auction began. She shook her head at the ponies up there. Not for her, that. She had enough work of her own to do on the farm, and if she wanted a date, she would darn well ask somepony that interested her, not go out with whoever had the deepest pockets. Although, if that blacksmith were to walk on stage, she might just have to bid, she thought with a chuckle. Beside her, Rarity fussed with Sweetie Belle's dress before sending her off with a little pat.

"I thought you were bringing Thunderlane to this shindig?" Applejack asked, as she watched Sweetie Belle walk off.

"I was, darling, but then Sweetie Belle had this huge fight with her little friend Snails, and I thought a night out in Canterlot would be just the perfect thing to cheer her up. So I went right over to Thunderlane's and cancelled our date," Rarity said, gesturing dramatically to emphasis various words. "Besides, it'd hardly be fair to him."

"Huh? How in tarnation can that be true?"

"Well, I'm signed up for the bachelorette auction, and as Ponyville's most eligible bachelorette, the bidding is going to go up quite high. As my date, he'd naturally have felt obligated to place the highest bid. I wouldn't want to place such a huge financial burden upon anypony. So you can see, the only thing to do was to show up without a date." She raised her hoof in the air again.

"Well, aren't you all full of yourself. Why Ah've half a mind so sign up myself. Ah bet Ah could get more than you. Ah am a winner of the Pony of Ponyville award afterall."

"Oh really?" Rarity said, looking Applejack over. "Okay, you're on. Name your stakes."

Silently, Applejack kicked herself. Her brother was always telling her to be careful before she spoke, and here she had gone and put her hoof in the hornet's nest. Still, she was not one to back down from a challenge.

Applejack thought hard. She could ask Rarity to help out in the fields, but that would probably be more trouble than it was worth. The barn could use a good painting though. A perfect task. Just messy enough to annoy Rarity, but at the same time, the act of prettying something up would be something she would enjoy. "You gotta paint mah barn," Applejack said, "an' no complainin' 'bout mah choice of colors."

Rarity pondered for a bit, then nodded. "And if I win you have got to let me design you a fashionable hat," she said.

"What's wrong with mah hat?" Applejack asked, reaching a hoof up to her stetson.

"Nothing, nothing at all," Rarity said quickly.

Too quickly, as if she were worried about offending, Applejack thought. There was nothing wrong with her hat. It had served her well for years, did everything a hat should do and more. Why would she want to replace it when it did not have a hole in it or anything?

"I just think you could use something nice for when you aren't working. Something stylish, with a band of just the right color to really bring out the colors of your eyes." Rarity got that look in her eye, a look Applejack had seen plenty of times before. It meant that Rarity was dressing Applejack in her mind. Not only in a hat, but an entire ensemble, no doubt. With a shake of her head, Rarity's look returned to normal. "So, is it a bet? Or are you chicken?" she asked.

"Ah ain't scared of nothin'. It's a bet." Giving in to a mischievous urge, Applejack spit on a forehoof before extending it toward Rarity.

Rarity cringed. With a look of disgust, she spit on her hoof and gave Applejack's a quick shake, before grabbing a glass of water away from a nearby pony, dipping a napkin in it, once again raising a hoof high in the air, and then furiously scrubbing her hoof. She stopped to check her work, then scrubbed some more. At last, satisfied, she lifted the napkin by one corner with her magic, dropping it on the tray of a passing goat.

"Sold, to the beautiful lady with the purple mane."

"What?" Applejack heard Rainbow Dash shout from up on stage. "You can't let her have the highest bid. Somepony has got to bid more. You. Or you! Come on! Somepony, please!"

"When Iron Will says 'Sold', that's all there is to be told. Make way for the next volunteer," Iron Will said, shoving Rainbow Dash off the stage.

"You bought Rainbow?" Applejack asked Rarity incredulously.

"Oh yes. I've designed this new line of pegasi wear that is absolutely fabulous, but I need a model for my advertising, and I could hardly ask Fluttershy, what with what happened the last time the poor darling modeled. This way, I get a model at a cost that is practically stealing," Rarity said with a smile. "Plus I owe Dash for that prank she and Pinkie pulled on me last month. What do you think of this slogan: 'For the pegasus who always dresses in style'?"

"She'll be more madder than a hornet in a windstorm," Applejack said.

"I know," Rarity replied, with a wicked grin. "That'll teach her to nail every piece of furniture in my inspiration room to the ceiling." She looked toward the stage, where the next auction looked to be just about completed. "Now, if you'll excuse me, darling, I do believe I'm next."

Applejack watched as Rarity worked her way through the crowd toward the stage. Before stepping up, she took the time to fix up her makeup and mane, then proudly pranced on stage, drawing the eye of almost every stallion in the place, as well as a few of the mares. Maybe the bet had not been the best idea.

Beside her, Rainbow Dash spoke up. "Can't believe she bid on me," she said. "Well, I can, because who wouldn't want to bid on the likes of me? I'm awesome and all that. But it's just I figured it'd have been one of my weather team, you know? Or maybe a Wonderbolt's fan who wanted to spend some time with a future Wonderbolt. Or a pegasus wanting flight tips from the best flyer in Ponyville. Though I guess I should be thankful it wasn't Cloudchaser, huh?" she said, nudging Applejack.

"Not that I'm scared that Rarity won. It is just that she will probably want to go to the spa or something. Yeah, probably just the spa. Well, no way I'm getting a hooficure, I can tell you that," Rainbow Dash said, trying to convince herself. "Surely it wouldn't be a date or something, right? We're all just friends, and that's how we like it. Maybe she just needs some sun or rain. I could do that. Or something from a high shelf. Easy-peasy with these babies." She flared her wings.

At the mention of high shelves, Applejack grew curious. "Did you and Pinkie really nail all the furniture in her inspiration room to the ceiling?"

Rainbow Dash looked confused for a second at the sudden change of topic. But talking about herself was one of her favorite activities, so she proudly answered. "No, of course not," Rainbow Dash said, pausing for effect. "Some of it we glued. It was so awesome. You should have seen her face. Best prank ever." She laughed loudly, slamming a forehoof on the ground several times.

Suddenly, her laughter stopped, and she looked at Applejack suspiciously. "Why? What'd she tell you? What's she got planned? You gotta tell me!" Rainbow Dash pleaded, now more anxious than when she had first started talking.

Applejack contemplated not telling Rainbow Dash what Rarity had said. For a prank like that, Rarity really deserved to personally unveil her plan. But then, Applejack remembered some of the pranks Dash had played on her. Surely Rarity would not begrudge her a little payback. "A photo shoot. She mentioned something about you always dressing in style."

Rainbow Dash slapped her forehooves on either side of her face. "All frou-frou? Lace and fancy hair? My image will be ruined!" she complained. One hoof lowered to the ground, while the other she held beneath her chin, in thought. "Although pictures of me would turn out to be awesome. I could do all sorts of action poses. Probably be good practice for when I'm a Wonderbolt. They probably have to do photo shoots all the time." She launched herself into the air, going through a series a poses that looked to be out of a bad kung-fu movie, nearly kicking one of the waiters in the face and leaving all the ponies nearby scowling at her. "Sorry," she said, her cheeks red from embarrassment, as she settled back to the ground.

Applejack laugh at the display. Somehow, she doubted those were the sort of shots Rarity had in mind. It would probably be something with fancy hair, carefully applied makeup, and elegant poses. No doubt both of her friends would find themselves thoroughly miserable. And yet she no doubt that Rarity would wind up with usable pictures. The thought of Rarity turned her attention to the stage, just in time for Rarity's auction to finish.

"Sold to my buddy from the gym for two hundred and forty bits," Iron Will called out.

"YEAH!" the white pegasus yelled back, as the ponies stomped their hooves in approval.

Applejack nearly choked. Over two hundred bits? There was no way she would go for that much. Why, Rarity had gotten Rainbow Dash for only seventy-five. "Don'tcha worry. Ah'll still wear yah everyday Ah can," she whispered to her hat.

Snails stood besides Mr. Rich. He liked Diamond Tiara's father, he decided. For being Ponyville's wealthiest citizen, he was surprisingly down to earth. He did talk a lot about business though, and a lot of that Snails could not quite follow. And by quite he meant not at all. But that was okay. As long as Snails seemed interested, Mr. Rich was content to carry the conversation by himself. Guess that was a trait he shared with his daughter.

Right now, Mr. Rich was telling Snails about how to use charitable donations to offset the recent closure of a tax loophole. He talked practically non-stop, only pausing for the occasional breath and to make a bid on Apple Bloom's sister. Each time he did that, it drew a protest from Diamond Tiara.

Snails wished he could go up there. Diamond Tiara had forbidden it, saying that she would have hated it if anypony else were to outbid her, that he was hers and hers alone. That made him feel good, but even so, he was jealous of the other stallions that had gone up. Silver Spoon had even convinced Featherweight to go. He had not fetched much though. For a while, it had looked like nobody bid, so Snails had offered three bits, all he had on him. An old lady had outbid him though. Probably a good thing, since he had no clue what he would have done with Featherweight. Maybe had him take a family portrait or have him help build a pirate fort. Not that it mattered. He had only bid so that Featherweight would not be embarrassed due to nopony, not even Silver Spoon, bidding on him.

A pirate fort would be cool though. He and Snips would definitely have to make one. Maybe Diamond Tiara would want to help. She could be the pirate captain. No, the pirate queen. She'd like that better.

"Five hundred bits!" Mr. Rich called out, causing the entire room to go quiet, and Diamond Tiara to stare at him, shock on her face. That look was matched by Applejack on stage.

"Now there's a stallion who knows what he wants," Iron Will called out. "Sold."

With a whoop of joy, Applejack tossed her hat in the air, catching it in her teeth on its way down, and flipping it back onto her head. "Who's most eligible now, Rarity?" she asked, as she bounded off the stage.

Snails felt the tap of Diamond Tiara's cane on his shoulder. "Snails, would you be so kind as to fetch me a drink? I need to talk to my father for a minute," Diamond Tiara said.

"Oh, sure," he replied.

She was annoyed at her dad, big time, Snails could tell, but no doubt Mr. Rich could handle it. He slid through the crowd, toward the side wall where the punch bowl was. He was almost there when he found his way blocked. Before him stood Sweetie Belle. He turned to go around her, but she motioned for him to stop.

"Wait. I just wanted to apologize for what happened at my sister's," she said. "I shouldn't have yelled at you. I'm really sorry. And I made you this."

Tentatively, she held out an envelope to him. He was not sure if he should take it, after what she had said. He had done his best to forget and forgive her accusations, but the truth was they still lingered. Still, she had been so helpful with the dance lessons and all that, and he did not want to stay mad at her, so he owed her this much. He took the card from her.

"Open it," she said quickly, almost as if she wanted to get this over with before she changed her mind.

Carefully, he opened the envelope and pulled out the card and look at it. With a gasp, he let the card drop to the floor. She had gone to his house and taken his card! What sort of cruel joke was this? But no, it was not his card. He knew every line of it, and this one was slightly different. A different card, but drawn by the same hoof.

"I think I got it mostly the same as the first one I made," Sweetie Belle said. She reached forward and opened the card, revealing a heart drawn within and Sweetie's name. "Just thought you should see the inside of this one before she signed it."

Snails blinked, in shock.

"I'm sorry," Sweetie Belle said. "I really am. But you should know I would never lie to you, not like her." She turned and walked off, pausing only to give a concerned and guilty look over her shoulder back at him.

"Really, daddy? Five hundred bits for that farm pony?" Diamond Tiara asked, her disapproval evident. "She's not worth a tenth of that."

"Actually, she's probably worth about double that," Filthy Rich replied to his daughter. "See, earlier, I overheard her making a bet with Miss Rarity. Thanks to me, Miss Applejack has won that bet. You know how much business we do with the Apples and their kin. And who handles most of the negotiating?"

Diamond Tiara followed her father's logic, while he munched on a daisy cracker he snagged from a nearby waiter. Between apples, cider, and zap apple jam, Richard's Barnyard Bargains did do a lot of business with the Apples. When you tossed in the various offshoots, like the Manehatten Oranges, the numbers went even higher. If this little stunt resulted in even a slight reduction of the price, it would indeed turn out profitable, but she still did not like it.

"Plus the money is for a good cause. This is your charity event, right, princess? And I want it to be a big success," her father said. "So a big bid is the least I could do."

"Okay, daddy. I guess that makes sense," Diamond Tiara conceded.

"And she has a really nice flank," her father added.

Diamond Tiara spit out the drink she had just taken. "Daddy! Gross! Just... Eew!" Her face looked like she had just eaten a huge bit of mashed alfalfa, mixed with apples, her two least favorite dishes in all of Equestria.

Her father laughed. "Gotcha."

"Not funny, dad. Not funny at all," Diamond Tiara said. "You've probably just scarred me for life."

"Oh, I think you'll survive somehow," her father said with a laugh and an affectionate stroke of her cheek. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got a check to write and a prize to claim." Her father took enough time to grab another of the daisy crackers before Diamond Tiara could stop him. "Delicious," he said, reaching for another one, but this time, she was quick enough to stop him. With a disappointed look, he sighed, and turned. As he went off, Diamond Tiara could just make out "very nice flank indeed" and his laughter.

He could not be serious, could he? No, there was no way, she reassured herself. He was too busy with work to have time for a relationship: that is what he always said whenever she tried to fix him up. Besides, there was no way he would risk jeopardizing the business relationship, which could happen if things did not work out. Yet three words nagged at her mind: Aunt Apple Bloom. She had best make sure. Better safe than sorry.

Mind made up, she turned and took a step, only to find her way blocked by Snails, who tossed a piece of paper at her hooves. He did not seem happy. More than that, he seemed downright angry. She glanced down at the paper.

"My... uh... card?" she asked.

He reached out with a hoof and opened it, revealing the heart drawn within it and the signature that was not her. Rage flooded through her, anger that Sweetie Belle would expose her like this, only to just as quickly be washed away by worry, the thought that this might be the end, that everyone would see this big scene and laugh at her. Snails was not supposed to break up with her. She was supposed to break up with him, but only when she wanted to. That was the plan.

"I can explain," she said, taking a step backwards, trying desperately to think of something.

"Well?" Snails asked. pushing the card toward her.

She took another step back, feeling her rump connect with the table behind her. "See, it is like this..." Except she could not think of something it was like.

Even worse, ponies nearby were beginning to notice. No matter which direction she looked, they seemed to be turning her way. She looked every which way, her eyes going from left to right and back again in a panic. What should she say? What could get her out of this mess? What would Sweetie Belle say in response to what she herself said? Sweetie Belle. Where was she? Diamond Tiara's roving eyes locked onto the white filly, whose eyes were staring right back at her, with an intensity that rivaled the sun's.

"Well, Di? Like what?" Snails practically shouted.

The room was too small. Strange that it had seemed so big before. Too many ponies for such a small area. Why had they sold so many tickets? They should have sold less. She needed to say something, anything. But what? Her mind was devoid of useful ideas. That never happened. She always knew what to say, or at least had something to say.

She needed time. She needed to talk to Silver Spoon. She needed space. She pushed back against the table, feeling her rump lift up into the air as her forelegs slid along the ground, trying to move her backwards.

Off to the side, she could see Sweetie Belle watching, a look of satisfaction on her face, yet also sadness. To the other side, Featherweight's photographer instincts saw him raising his camera in her direction. And in front of her, Snails. Hurt, anger, betrayal, caring, all evident on his face. So much hurt, and none of it deserved. She wished she could take it away, make it all better. She wished...

She took a step forward and kissed Snails, full on the lips, as the camera flashed.

Chapter 11

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"So what'd you tell him?"

Silver Spoon's question pulled Diamond Tiara out of the trance-like state she had been in. Shaking off the hypnotic effects of the soft clicks and bumps of the train travelling down the rails, she contemplated how much of the truth she wanted to tell her friend. Should she bring up her own conflicted feelings? Sure, they had sworn to always tell each other the truth, but a case like this had to be an acceptable exception.

"Well?" Silver Spoon asked.

"The truth." At Silver Spoon's incredulous look, Diamond Tiara winked. "Not the whole truth, of course. Just the useful parts. I told him that Sweetie Belle has a crush on him. That her friends are trying to break us up. That that's why I'd panicked and let him think her card was from me."

"How'd he react?"

"He wanted some time alone." The soft clicks of the train on its rails continued to tick away as the two fillies sat in silence. The memory of Snails telling her to stay away from him for a bit, that he needed some time, played through her mind. "I think he'll be okay though. He said he wants to talk again after school tomorrow," she said.

Silver Spoon nodded. "So you still got him hooked. Good."

"Was there ever any doubt?" Diamond Tiara replied. "At the very least, he won't be running to her. Not after that kiss."

Diamond Tiara replayed the scene in her mind. Not the parts leading up to it, of course. Just the good part. That she considered kissing Snails a good part surprised her, but it was the truth. The first meeting of lips, the shocked look in his eyes, and the way it melted away as he kissed her back. It had been nice, not at all gross like she had expected. Even knowing that a crowd was watching her kiss Snails, Snails of all ponies, had not ruined the moment. Instead, she had gracefully curtsied to them after the kiss, bringing forth even more cheers and whistles.

"So, what was it like?"

She had felt so light, like she could have floated away in the slightest gust of wind. The slight shortness of breath. The softness of his lips meeting hers. The look on Snails's face afterwards, as he blinked rapidly, his little mind still trying to figure out what had happened. The way his head nodded as she told him she would explain later, on the train.

"Oh, it was, like, totally gross. All icky and slimy. And I think he tried to use his tongue." Actually, she had been the one imagining doing that. Not during the kiss they had shared tonight, but the next time she got a chance to really kiss him. She had read about it in a book once. It had seemed disgusting at the time, but now it almost seemed desirable.

"Blech." Silver Spoon's face looked like a foal who had just been fed a big bite of brussel sprouts wrapped in mashed alfalfa. "I've got to tell you, Diamond, you sure are committed. I don't know if I could bring myself to do that. With Featherweight, I mean. He's so annoying. If it weren't for what he did to you, I'd so dump him right this second."

Whether summoned by Silver Spoon's mention of him or some innate journalistic instinct to always be where he was not wanted, Featherweight picked that moment to enter the car. Diamond Tiara sighed and quickly looked away, hoping he would not see them. The last thing she wanted right now was to have that colt around right now, with his moping and boring conversations. He was worse than Snips. And Snails, she added. Definitely worse than Snails.

"Oh pony feathers. It is him, isn't it?" Silver Spoon asked, slouching down.

Diamond Tiara nodded. She risked a quick glance at the other end of the car, hoping he was not coming their way. Her luck for the day had been used up, apparently, because not only was he walking down the hallway toward them, he was looking at her. She sighed as he slid into the bench across from her, forcing Silver Spoon to scoot over.

"Hello, girls," he said, stretching out the first word. He set his camera down and settled into his seat. Diamond Tiara frowned. He was up to something. "So I was thinking about this week's issue of the Foal Free Press. Front page, a big story on this event. The headline: 'Love for Golden Oaks Library'." One of his forelegs swept across the space before him, as if pointing out the words. "Of course, it'll need a picture. Something that will really draw the interest of readers." He paused, probably to give them time to see where he was heading with this.

Diamond Tiara rolled her eyes. He was actually going to try and use the pictures he took of her and Snails to blackmail her? Had stick boy actually grown a spine? It would be interesting to find out, she decided. She gave him a smile and asked, "And?"

Featherweight seemed taken aback by her response. She watched as he swallowed and looked away. Then his face hardened and he met her gaze. "And I've got the perfect picture: You kissing Snails."

The image of everypony in her class laughing at her flashed through her mind, and for the briefest of moments, she might have considered panicking. But then the more rational part of her brain took over. Diamond Tiara laughed.

"Listen, feathers for brains, if I was worried about ponies knowing I'd kissed Snails, I surely wouldn't have done it in front of a whole roomful of ponies. Ponies who love nothing better than to gossip." She looked at Featherweight's face. "What? You didn't consider that? Geez, seriously, if you want to force somepony to do something, at least make sure you got something on them first."

"Does... does that mean you aren't going to let me off the hook if I don't print the picture?"

"Don't print the picture? Ha! Exactly the opposite. I want you to print it." She stood up, leaning over the table and jabbing a hoof in his face. "And make it big! And I want a copy of the picture, Monday, first thing!"

She was not sure what she would use the picture for, but it seemed like the right thing to say. And by the look on his face, it had been. Utterly crushed. Served him right for thinking he could get the better of her. Of course, that would probably make him more mopey than ever. She smiled. He scooped up his camera and started to slide out into the aisle, but she stopped him to add one more thing. "Also, Silver Spoon is totally breaking up with you, because you're, like, a total downer."

She watched him leave, enjoying his confusion. He had wanted to end it on his terms, from a position of strength, and instead he had been dismissed and was lower than ever. She laughed.

"Well, that was interesting," Silver Spoon said. "Are you sure about letting him off the hook though?"

Diamond Tiara nodded. "No point in you being miserable over somepony as unimportant as him."

Silver Spoon's laughter rang through the air. "For sure." She paused, and her face grew solemn. With a raised hoof, she asked, "We're not letting Alula off easy though, right?"

"Of course not."

"Good. I want her to suffer a bit longer for what she did. Friends shouldn't betray each other like that."

Diamond Tiara acknowledged what her friend had said with a slight smile, but her thoughts were already elsewhere. What would Snails wind up deciding tomorrow? Would he end it? Did she want him to end it? She stared out the window and scowled. The feeling of power from putting Featherweight in his place was gone, but she wanted that feeling again. It beat this uncertainty. She did not like that feeling at all.

She thought of another of her dad's lessons: "If you want something to happen, don't wait around until it does. Make it happen." Well, she could do that. She would act like she was confident until she that is exactly what she was.

She turned back toward Silver Spoon, a smirk plastered on her face. "So I've been thinking about tomorrow. First, we take the picture Featherweight is giving us and then we..."

Sweetie Belle put on a fake smile as her two friends rushed up to her. So eager were they to know that their school books nearly flew out of their packs from the excited bouncing.

"Did it work?" Apple Bloom asked.

"Is he your boyfriend now?" Scootaloo asked. "Tell us everything. Except the mushy stuff. No mushy stuff."

"Unless you really want to tell us," Apple Bloom said, nudging the unicorn twice.

It was too much for Sweetie Belle. She collapsed to the ground, tears starting to well in her eyes. At the sight, her friends playful demeanor stopped. Apple Bloom lowered her head, holding it close to Sweetie's.

"What happened?" Apple Bloom asked quietly.

Though it hurt her to relive it all, she told them. She told them about how she gave Snails the card and the following confrontation and the kiss that ended it. She told them about the train ride home, about how she had curled up, pretending to be happy when all she wanted to do was cry, while Rarity and her friends had chatted about the event. Eventually, she had gone to look for Snails and he had told her to leave him alone, that he knew why she had done what she did. That had hurt most of all.

Her friends held her while she let it all out. Within the warm embrace of her friends, her spirit climbed out of the pit, and at last, she thanked them. They nodded awkwardly.

"Reckon we'd best be heading to school," Apple Bloom said. Sweetie nodded and fell into step beside her friends. For a while, they walked in silence, until Apple Bloom broke it. "Ah'm really sorry it didn't work out how you was hoping, Sweetie."

"I... I just want to forget all about it," Sweetie Belle said. "Why does life have to be so complicated?"

"We won't mention it again," Apple Bloom swore. And for about ten paces, that was the case, but then Scootaloo spoke.

"I just can't believe she kissed him," Scootaloo said. Apple Bloom glared at Scootaloo, who shrugged. "What? I'm only saying what we're both thinking."

"Yah heard what Sweetie said. Tiara was all panicked. Things were getting out of hoof faster than a timber wolf in the hen house, and she just acted. Ah'd bet she probably spent darn near the whole train ride home talkin' Silver Spoon's ear off with her complaints about it. No doubt she's doing her best tah forget all about it. Right, Sweetie?"

Sweetie Belle did not answer. In her mind, she replayed the scene yet again. Something about Diamond Tiara's expression did not fit with what Apple Bloom had just said. The panic had been there, for sure. But there was only the slightest trace of disgust and horror afterwards. Her body shivered at the possible implications of that.

"Um, Sweetie?" Apple Bloom asked.

"What if... What if she kissed him 'cause she likes him?" Sweetie Belle asked.

"Want to kiss Snails? Seriously?" Scootaloo laughed, before cutting herself short as Sweetie looked her way. Scootaloo swallowed and shrugged, her cheeks reddening slightly. "No offense, Sweetie. I mean, I'm sure Snails is awesomely kissable. Not nearly as gross as one would think." She gave a big, toothy smile, the same type Sweetie Belle had seen her use on grownups after one of their crusading attempts had resulted in substantial property damage, before she continued. "What I meant to say was—"

Apple Bloom shoved a hoof into Scootaloo's mouth. "Ah'm sure she just means for how Diamond Tiara would see things. Right, Scootaloo?"

Scootaloo nodded, and Apple Bloom retracted her hoof. "Yeah. She'd never lower her—"

Scootaloo's sentenced ended with a loud oomph as she was plowed into by another pony. The folder the pony had been carrying dropped to the ground, scattering its contents across the floor. Sweetie Belle gasped and moved to help the hapless pony, only to step back when she saw who it was.

"Why don't you blank flanks watch where you are going? I had to totally swerve several times before I hit you!" Silver Spoon snapped at the crusaders.

Apple Bloom raised one eyebrow. "Y'all had tah swerve tah hit us?"

"Oops. I mean I, like, totally tried to swerve to avoid running into you. I most definitely did not mean to run into you just so I could accidentally spill the contents of this folder. That'd be the sort of thing only lame ponies like you would do." Silver Spoon started shoving various papers and pictures back into it. She gasped and pressed her hoof down on one of the pictures, before picking it up. "Look at this! Now it has a hoof print on it. Thanks to your clumsiness, it's ruined!"

She held up the picture for the crusaders to see. A picture of Diamond Tiara, eyes closed, leaning forward to lock lips with a wide eyed Snails. Silver Spoon waved it slowly in front of all three of them, to make sure they could all see smudge, which did not in any obscure either Snails or Diamond Tiara, before she slipped the picture back into the folder.

Silver Spoon gave an exaggerated sigh. "I sure hope Featherweight can make another copy. That picture is going to be on the frontpage of the Foal Free Press on this week's issue. Really big. On Thursday." She raised a bare foreleg and looked at it. "Oh, look at the time. I, like, so got to go. See you in class, losers!" She spun around and raced off.

Apple Bloom stood still, her head tilted slightly. "Yah know, something tells me that might not have been entirely accidental."

"You think?" Scootaloo asked Apple Bloom, before turning her attention to Sweetie Belle. "You still think she might like him for reals?"

Sweetie Belle did not answer her. She stood, her forelegs spread, glaring at Silver Spoon's retreating form. "Oh, if she wants war, I'll take her to war."

Silver Spoon looked away from where Alula sat by herself in the lunchroom. Like the weather that saw them eating lunch indoors, the pegasus's mood was miserable, grey, and depressing. And just like the ponies stayed indoors to stay out of the rain, they avoided sitting near Alula, lest her mood was contagious. Alula must really have liked Featherweight, to be taking it this hard. Silver Spoon was not sure what she saw in him. Maybe it was a pegasus hormone sort of thing. Whatever the cause was did not matter that. What did was that Alula's state last until the weekend. Then her time would be complete, the sentence served.

On Saturday, Alula's good friends would come to visit to her and apologize for not doing so sooner. The blame for that would be laid on Heart Throb, of course, and the conversation would naturally shift to how colts were jerks. And maybe that would set the... no, stay focused on the weekend. Just the weekend. Colts were jerks. Then they would excuse Snails from that. And then they would hug and cry, and all would be forgiven. They would be closer friends than before. The perfect conclusion to the plan.

Silver Spoon raised her head and looked toward Featherweight, watching as his gaze drifted toward Alula, then away again. It felt good to be rid of him. Even accounting for his moping and his being a bore, he just had not fit in. Actually, she would glad when all this was over, when things were back to normal. When it was back to just hanging out with her regular friends. Dating could wait until they went to university in the big city, where they could meet somepony with a real future. Although, maybe if the right pony presented herself... Himself. She meant himself.

Diamond Tiara's laughter derailed her train of thought, and Silver Spoon looked over to see her friend chuckling. She followed Diamond Tiara's gaze over to the next table, where Snails sat. For a moment, she worried that maybe things would not return to normal, but she dismissed those foolish thoughts. Diamond Tiara had assured her that there were no feelings for Snails, and since she and Diamond Tiara could tell each other anything, would never lie to each other, she had nothing to worry about on that front.

"These seats taken?" a voice asked, as Scootaloo sat down without waiting for an answer to her question.

Silver Spoon restrained a chuckle. Obviously, this morning's little trick had struck a nerve. Well, that had been obvious enough just from Sweetie Belle's expression. And now they wanted to play. As if they stood a chance against her and Diamond Tiara.

"They're for mature ponies only. The baby section is over there." Diamond Tiara pointed over to where the youngest kids in school sat.

"Your flanks will fit right in there," Silver Spoon added. "Not a cutie mark amongst them. And, like, maybe you can recruit them for your little loser club."

"Maybe we will," Apple Bloom said as she took a seat. "They've probably got better manners than you two."

"Like you'd know a thing about manners, what with being raised in a barn and all," Diamond Tiara shot back.

And like that, a full-fledged insult war was on. Scootaloo retorted, with support from Sweetie Belle. Silver Spoon seized the obvious retort and drove it home mercilessly, only for Apple Bloom to fire back with one of her own. With each comment, the fillies' voices raised in volume, even as they themselves stood upon their rear legs, using their forelegs to gesture ever more flamboyantly.

"Girls!" Everypony froze at the sound of Cheerilee's voice. "Is there a reason for all this ruckus?"

Silver Spoon's heart raced as she turned to face the teacher. She could not think of anything to say. Luckily, Diamond Tiara came to the rescue.

"We're sorry, Miss Cheerilee. We're just excited about what we're covering in history class today, that's all. Right?" All the formerly bickering fillies nodded, doing their best to look entirely innocent.

"Oh, yes, Miss Cheerilee. The fourth century of the Lunar Exile period is our favorite," Sweetie Belle said.

"Oh really?" the teacher asked. The students dutifully nodded. "Well then, I'll be looking forward to your insight into the EG Affair and what it showed about the status of Equestrian society of the time. But until then, girls, please try to keep your enthusiasm in check."

"Okay, Miss Cheerilee," all five fillies said in unison. Miss Cheerilee took a moment longer to look at each filly, a look that felt like it was trying to plumb the depths of her soul, but like the others, Silver Spoon maintained her best cute and innocent look. It seemed to work, for Miss Cheerilee turned and left. The fillies all breathed a sigh of relief.

"Good going, brainiac," Diamond Tiara snarled at Sweetie Belle, as she reached into her pack and pulled out her history book, flipping through the pages to what they would be covering in class.

Snails stood waiting outside the school, shifting impatiently from side to side. His usual smile was absent, but then, so were the thoughts that usually occupied his mind. He should be happy. He had what he wanted. She had even kissed him! And yet he was having doubts. The whole situation with Sweetie Belle. Was she really interested in him as well? He liked her as a friend and had been sure that was all she had seen in him. After all, he knew that he was quite the catch as a boyfriend, he also knew that fillies seemed to be ignorant of this fact. Why was she interested in him? Why was Diamond Tiara? Was Sweetie Belle really jealous of Diamond Tiara? Perhaps that is why there had almost gotten into a fight at lunch? Was he really the cause of it all? Or was he just a pawn in some sick game?

It was all too complicated. He preferred things simple. Playing pirates with Snips on a nice sunny day, with just enough of a breeze to feel the wind in one's mane. An awesome magic show, with fireworks. A good movie with a bold hero, a daring heroine, and a happy ending. Simple things that did not leave one with troubled thoughts that refused to go away.

And yet... that kiss. It had caught him completely by surprise and been all that he had hoped. No, it had exceeded his wildest expectations. Diamond Tiara sure did not make anything easy. Well, except enjoying being kissed by her. With that thought came the return of his usual smile and the creak of the door.

He looked toward the sound and felt his momentary return to bliss wiped away. Through the doorway stepped Diamond Tiara, and yet not, for what stood there was not the confident and brash filly he adored, but one who was tentative. It occurred to him that this was a side of her he had not seen, a side she must usually keep hidden. The realization pushed his worries back into the dark recesses of his mind, and he stood still, once again enjoying just feeling good. The silence lasted until Diamond Tiara spoke up.

"Well? What's the plan?" she asked, her voice harsh and demanding. And yet, underneath it, he could sense an insecurity. Before last night, he probably would not have noticed. Of course, before last night, it might not have been there.

He leaned forward and kissed her, enjoying her momentary surprise. "I thought maybe we'd go for a walk, maybe by the lake?" he suggested.

She smiled at him. "I'd... I'd like that." And not just any smile, but one of ones she usually reserved for Silver Spoon. He froze, just smiling and staring.

"Um, Snails?" Diamond Tiara asked, waving a hoof in front of his face. "You in there?"

The smile gone, his brain began to function again. He nodded slowly. Conversation. He needed to say something. Something that would get her talking happily. Maybe something about— "So, what was up at lunch today?" his mouth asked, without waiting for his brain to decide that this was the right thing to say.

Diamond Tiara rolled her eyes."Oh, just Apple Blank and her friends starting trouble again."

The venom in her voice when she mentioned Apple Bloom sent a slight shiver up his spine. "What's the deal with you two anyway?" he asked. It probably was not the smartest thing to say, but then, he was not the smartest pony. And he really did want to know.

Surprisingly enough, she did not bite his head off. "What, you mean besides the fact that she's, like, a total menace to the town and I seem to be the only one that can see it?"

Snails pondered that. Sure, Apple Bloom had done a few bad things, but nothing that much worse than any other foal. Certainly nothing as bad as bringing a bear larger than the town hall into their midst anyway. That had been a crazy weekend. He hoped the Great and Powerful Trixie would return to Ponyville again soon. She would probably have all new magic tricks, even more impressive than last time. It would be awesome. He could just imagine Diamond Tiara snuggled against him, while Snips sat on his other side, and they all oohed and awed at the marvelous show. The rest of the class would be there too, like Rumble and Apple Bloom. Except that Diamond Tiara would probably fight with Apple Bloom, for some reason other than just bringing a bear to town. "There's something else, no?"

"I just dislike her, okay?. I always have and I always will." She walked without speaking for a bit. "Actually, I suppose that's not quite true. The 'always have' bit, I mean. She used to be my best friend. That's back before I met Sil, obviously. Back when my mom... back when my mother was still alive."

"I'm sorry," Snails said out of habit.

"For what? My mother being dead? You had nothing to do with it. Besides, it was a long time ago. I barely even remember her." Again silence, and Snails let it be, for he sensed that Diamond Tiara had more to say. It took a while before she continued though, long enough that the lake was in sight.

"There was a storm. A big one. And just like that, my life changed. One moment I was your typical happy filly, and the next I'm halfway to being an orphan." She lowered her voice, trying to sound like a stallion. "Sorry, kid, there's been a wagon accident. Your mom won't be coming home ever again." A swift kick of Diamond Tiara's leg sent a rock flying into the lake. "I didn't speak for a week. But you know what got me talking again?"

Snails shook his head, not saying a word for fear that the sound of his voice would ruin the moment.

"A sleepover." She gave a short laugh, and it was not a merry one. "Yeah, a sleepover. My dad had to leave town on business, so he arranged for me to stay with the Apples. It was like there was light again after eternal night. I'd get to spend time with my best friend. We'd play games, have fun, and just for a little while, things would be how they used to be.

"At first things were great. We played happily. Of course, it was a farm, so Apple Bloom had to do some chores, and I went along to help. Everything was fine until she started laughing at me because I didn't know how to do all the farm stuff. Why would I, you know? I wasn't raised in a barn like her, but she laughed anyway. I got angrier and angrier. And then we had to cross a stream. Naturally, they didn't have a proper bridge. No, it had to be a log. A slime-covered, slippery log. So, yeah, I slipped and fell in. And she just giggled.

"As I sat there in mud, the cold water swirling by, it was like it all became so clear. I could see her true nature, and how it was all the fault of her and her family. Everything that was wrong was tied to that farm. My mom wouldn't even have been pulling that wagon if not for that farm, you know. She was returning from taking a shipment of zap apple jam to Canterlot."

Another rock found its way into the lake, followed by a third, before Diamond Tiara continued.

"Anyway, I tackled her, right then and there, knocked her into the middle of the stream. Applejack had to pull us apart, twice. The first time the moment I got free I threw myself right back at her." Diamond Tiara laughed and shook her head.

"I spent the rest of the day sitting on a stool in the kitchen. And so did she. Later, she even had the nerve to try and say sorry, but I saw through that. I asked her what she was sorry for and she couldn't even admit what she had done. All she could say was that she was sorry for making me angry.

"For the longest time, I wouldn't even go back to that farm. Threw the biggest fits you can imagine if my dad so much as suggested it. Over time, that passed. I don't even hate her that much anymore. But one thing I can tell you: Never trust an Apple. They'll always backstab you in the end."

She laughed again. "So there you go. My past with Apple Bloom." She stopped briefly, looking out over the lake, watching the sunlight reflect on its waters. "You know, you're only the second pony I've ever told that to."

"How about this one?" Filthy Rich asked, as he held up a suit in front of himself.

Diamond Tiara cast an appraising eye upon it. The color suited him well. The cut was modern, yet classic. If he combined it with the right tie, he would surely catch the eye of every pony with an interest in stallions. Applejack would barely be able to keep her hooves off him.

She shook her head. "No, daddy. I don't think that one is a good choice at all."

Filthy Rich looked down at the suit and ran a hoof along it, smoothing it. With a slight tilt of his head, he looked back toward his daughter. "Really? I thought it was quite fetching."

"Oh, no, it sends completely the wrong message. Right, Spoon?" Diamond Tiara asked.

"Definitely, Mr. Rich. Completely the wrong message."

Diamond Tiara scanned the various outfits laying upon her father's bed. "I'd go with the dark grey one, daddy."

He looked at it, once again with a questioning look upon his face. "Are you sure? Don't you think it is a little too, um, business?"

Well, of course it is. That's the idea. Like she would want Apple Bloom's sister to get any romantic ideas toward her father when they went out for their evening two nights from now. Especially with him picking out the clothes beforehoof, even if he was going to be away on business the next couple of days. She was taking no chances. "Oh no. It is perfect."

Silver Spoon nodded in agreement. Filthy Rich looked at the suit he was holding one last time, then shrugged and tossed it onto a pile of other rejected cloths.

"Well, okay. I'll trust your judgment. Now, what tie to combine with it. I was thinking the red one with the sailboats," he said.

Diamond Tiara's ears shot up as the doorbell rang. "That'll be him, Sil." She slid off the bed and walked toward the door. Before going through it, she turned her head and nodded to her father. "That one should be fine, daddy."

Silver Spoon added her support for the choice. "That one for sure, Mr. Rich."

The two fillies giggled once out of earshot. "No chance she'll see it as anything other than business related that way."

"For sure," Silver Spoon said, as they passed through the doorway into the entry hall.

"Mr. Iron Will and friends here for you, Miss Tiara," Praiseworthy said, indicating the minotaur and a pair of his goat servants.

Diamond Tiara nodded. "Thank you, Praiseworthy."

"Will Miss and her guests be wanting tea?" Praiseworthy asked.

Diamond Tiara looked at Iron Will and raised an eyebrow. At the minotaur's nod, she turned to the butler. "That sounds lovely, Praiseworthy. We'll be in the study."

The butler nodded, then turned crisply and headed toward the kitchen.

Diamond Tiara led the way through the house. Once at their destination, Iron Will sat himself down upon one of the chairs and dropped the folder he was carrying upon the table. With one finger, he flipped it open and slid the top piece of paper over to Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon.

"So this here's the tally of all the income." With his finger, he indicated each item as he recited them. "Ticket sales, donations, the bachelorette auction, and the raffle. As you can see, the total comes to six thousand, three hundred and eighty-two bits."

Silver Spoon gave an appreciative whistle. Diamond Tiara would have done the same, but whistling was not something she had bothered to learn to do. It was just far too common, although it did have its uses. Like right now. Almost sixty-four hundred bits. That was way more than the paltry thirteen hundred the blank flanks had made with their fair. She could hardly wait to rub it in their faces tomorrow at school.

Iron Will slid over another piece of paper. "And this here is the expenses. Rental, decorations, labor, Mr. Gustave's fee, drinks, food, and my own modest fee. All itemized."

Diamond Tiara looked down the list and at the big number at the bottom. Her anticipation of tomorrow disappeared faster than social graces at an Apple family reunion. Not that she had ever been or had any desire to go to one of those, but she was pretty sure the pigs would be the most refined thing there.

"But... that only leaves like eight hundred left," she protested.

Iron Will nodded.

"Are you sure there isn't any mistake?" Silver Spoon asked, as Diamond Tiara slid back into her chair.

"'A mistake in the bill is not nice; always be sure to check it thrice': That's my motto when it comes to bills. There's no mistake, Iron Will guarantees it. I've got all the receipts here, if you want to check for yourself." He indicated the various bits of paper that were still in the folder.

"Oh," Silver Spoon said.

Seeing the fillies' disappointment, Iron Will softened his usual gruff demeanor. "Iron Will did say you should try to get some volunteers and donations."

"But that'd have taken so much time," Diamond Tiara protested. "We have lives, you know."

"Sorry, girls. There's nothing Iron Will can do. I already gave you the best prices I can manage," Iron Will said. He gestured to one of the goats, who held out another folder. From it, Iron Will took the final invoice and slid it over to the two fillies.

With a sigh, Diamond Tiara signed it.

"I hope we're playing some dodgeball today," Diamond Tiara said, placing her tiara in the center of her gym bag.

"I, like, totally know what you mean," Silver Spoon said, as she put away her necklace. "I mean, I'm not a big fan of dodgeball, but today, chucking the ball as hard as I could at somepony would feel so good."

"I know, right?" Diamond Tiara replied, sliding her necklace into the side pocket.

The two fillies, all ready for gym, slid their bags over against the wall and headed out the door, to join the rest of the class, who were gathered around Miss Cheerilee. Diamond Tiara frowned. Miss Cheerilee did not have the red rubber balls that meant either dodgeball or kickball. Instead, she had a round ball with hexagonal patterns on it.

"Okay, class, today for P.E., we'll be playing hoofball," Miss Cheerilee announced to the class. The class cheered. Hoofball, or soccer as it was known in the griffon kingdoms, was always favorite. Diamond Tiara glared at Apple Bloom, giving a slight smile as she imagined slide tackling Apple Bloom and seeing her flipping over in the air. Feeling eyes upon her, she glanced to her left to see a similar expression on Scootaloo's face.

"Bring it," she mouthed to the pegasus.

Miss Cheerilee waited until the class quieted down, then continued. "Now I know normally let you pick your own teams, but for today, I've made up the teams. Diamond Tiara, Sweetie Belle, Scootaloo, Silver Spoon, and Apple Bloom, you'll be on the red team. Rumble, Alula, Snips, Snails, Truffle Shuffle, and Tootsie Flute will be on the blue."

Sweetie Belle raised her hoof.

"Yes, Sweetie?" Miss Cheerilee asked.

"I have to leave early to help my sister, remember?"

"Is it true she wound up completely red, mane and all, from trying to paint a barn?" Silver Spoon said with a snicker. Others in the class made their own comments, and the volume quickly rose, before a whistle cut through it.

"Quiet, class," Miss Cheerilee said, the whistle hanging from her neck by a cord. "Okay, Sweetie, you can go." While Sweetie Belle ran off, Miss Cheerilee looked over her class. "That leaves it four on six, so I'll need to move one player over. Let's see..."

Please let it be Snails, Diamond Tiara repeated to herself.


Diamond Tiara groaned. To say that Twist was not good at hoofball, or any sport for that matter, was like saying rain was wet. Now she had Twist on her team as well as those crusaders. Even with her leadership skills, it was going to be an unmitigated disaster.

It had been an unmitigated disaster. The type of disaster that, in future years, would be dragged up whenever some new disaster occurred, just to stress how disastrous the new disaster truly was. They had only managed to score a single goal, and that one had been by Silver Spoon, on a lucky kick from midfield, on an undefended goal. Truffle Shuffle, the opposing team's goalie, had long since started leaving his team's goal to try and score some points as well. And he had scored. Twice.

The whistle signaling that it was time to hit the showers and get ready for the next class had been a relief. The opposing team had rushed off together, cheering and laughing, leaving the thoroughly defeated red team blaming each other for the trouncing.

"Well, maybe if you tried this new thing I heard of, we wouldn't have lost so badly. I think they call it 'passing'," Scootaloo said.

"Like you're one to talk," Diamond Tiara shot back.

"Hey, I tried passing to you!"

"Yeah, once."

"And you totally blew it. Just stood there as the ball bounced past and out. So of course I wasn't going to just give the ball to the other team like that again."

Okay, that might have been her fault, but she had been keeping an eye on Snails as he ran. Keeping an eye on where the opposing team was at was something you were supposed to do. But even if she had gotten a little bit too caught up in it, she wasn't going to admit it. Besides, there had been plenty of times she had been actively calling for the ball and Scootaloo had not passed, inevitably losing the ball to the defenders. "No, instead you just let them take it from you."

"Well, it's not my fault if—"

"It was jutht a game, guyth" Twist said, trying to play the peacemaker.

"Shut up!" both said unison.

"Did you, like, even try to stop any of the shots?" Silver Spoon asked Twist.

"Hey! She got a couple of them," Apple Bloom said.

"Probably because she just happened to be in the way," Silver Spoon retorted.

"Itth not my fault. I tol' you I wathn't a good goalie. But you didn't lithten," Twist said.

"And you," Diamond Tiara said, pointing a hoof at Apple Bloom. "I can't believe you shot on our own goal."

"That was a pass!" Apple Bloom said. "And I was doing what you yelled to do."

"Whatever. I so didn't tell you to score for the other team."

"Like, totally," Silver Spoon said.

"Well, maybe it wouldn't have happened if you'd been back on defense like you were supposed to be, rather than wandering around midfield!" Scootaloo said, pushing Silver Spoon.

The two sets of fillies faced off, glaring at each other, with Twist caught in the middle, trying to keep the two sides apart. One pony shoved another, but before it could go further, a shadow fell over them. "Girls!" Miss Cheerilee said with an edge to her voice the fillies rarely heard. "Twist, to the dressing room. Now."

"Yeth, Mith Cheerilee," Twist said meekly, slinking off with a backwards glance.

The four remaining fillies now faced Miss Cheerilee, who glared at them until Twist was out of earshot. "I know something has been going on between you. I'd hoped it would sort itself out, but it hasn't been. That's why I put you on the same team. I was hoping you'd work out your differences and come together as a team. Instead, you put on the worst display I've ever seen." She sighed. "Frankly, girls, I'm disappointed in you."

"But what I can tell you is that this needs to end. One more incident and I'm sending a note home for all involved. Do you girls understand?"

The four fillies nodded dutifully, while casting angry glares at each other.

"Okay, then apologize and hit the showers. And let's have no more of this pointless bickering."

The four fillies mumbled apologies none of them really meant. That seemed sufficient to satisfy Miss Cheerilee, and Apple Bloom and Scootaloo walked away toward the showers. Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon tried to follow, but Miss Cheerilee stopped them.

"I'm serious, girls. I don't care who starts it. I expect the two of you to set a good example. Now, I'll see you in class."

Diamond Tiara fumed as the teacher walked off. Who was Miss Cheerilee to threaten Silver Spoon and her? It was all the fault of the blank flanks, not them. Maybe she should make sure those photos of Miss Cheerilee got published after all. But how to work it so that Featherweight did not get blamed? Not that she would mind if he did, but they had made a deal with him. Plus he had held up his side, so far. When it came to business, one's word was one's bond is one of the things daddy always said. Plus he would probably rat them out if they got him in trouble, and that would be bad. She ground her teeth in frustration.

"Calm down, Tiara," Silver Spoon said. "We don't want to get in trouble."

Diamond Tiara sighed. Silver Spoon was right, she knew. The last thing she needed right now was to get into trouble for fighting with Apple Bloom and her friends. If she did, it would no doubt come up at her father and Applejack's night out. That could lead to all sorts of further questions. She had too much going on right now to deal with that. She took several deep breaths and counted down from twenty, slowly.

Reaching the end, she let out another deep breath. "Okay. I'm good."

"Then shower time and back to class. So totally can't wait until this day is over."

Diamond Tiara nodded and followed Silver Spoon inside. She made it a point to ignore the crusaders, instead checking out the fascinating tiles on the opposite wall. Reaching her preferred shower stall, she turned on the water. Steam surrounded her, for she liked her showers hot. Soon, the soothing hot water washed away much of her irritability.

Turning off the water, she grabbed the towel from her gym bag and dried herself off. The next step was to comb her mane and tail. By the time she finished that, only Silver Spoon remained. That was to be expected, since the other colts and fillies from the class did not care for their appearance as much as the two of them. Next, she put on her tiara. That left just one thing left. She reached into her bag, feeling for her necklace. It was not there.

Calmly, she felt again, more thoroughly, but again without success. She held the bag open and looked inside. Not there.

"Sil? Have you seen my necklace?"

"Isn't it in your bag?"

"Of course it isn't in my bag. I wouldn't be asking if it was there," Diamond Tiara said, giving Silver Spoon a look that made it clear she expected better of her friend.

"I meant the side pocket, dummy," Silver Spoon said, sticking her tongue out at her friend.

"I never put it in there," Diamond Tiara said, not even bothering to look. "Besides, I distinctly remember putting it by my tiara, like I always do."

"You don't suppose...?" Silver Spoon said, indicating with her head the spot where the crusaders usually kept their things.

Like a catapult shot, Diamond Tiara was out the door. The moment she was outside, she scanned, looking for the three fillies. There, by the door to the schoolhouse proper. Without further thought, she charged their way. "Where is it?" she yelled.

"Your heart? I thought you didn't have one," Scootaloo said.

"No, my necklace, you flightless waterfowl," Diamond Tiara yelled back. "I know you lame-brains took it. Give it back!"

"Ah wouldn't steal!" Apple Bloom said.

"As if. The whole town knows you stole stuff from that zebra when you nearly infected the entire town with the cutie pox. Where is it, you thief?" Diamond Tiara grabbed Apple Bloom.

Scootaloo shoved Diamond Tiara away. "Keep your hooves off her, if you know what's good for you."

"Or what? You'll flap your wings at me? Was it you that took it?" Diamond Tiara accused, glaring at Scootaloo. "Trying to join your friend in her life of crime?"

"Like you're one to talk, card thief," Scootaloo shot back.

"One last chance. Give it back."

"Or what?"

Diamond Tiara threw herself at Scootaloo, sending a feather flying into the air as the two collided. The force of the collision bowled Scootaloo over, and Diamond Tiara landed on top of her, taking advantage of the position and her opponent's surprise to land several good blows. She felt somepony grab her, trying to pull her off Scootaloo, and then heard a loud oomph as Silver Spoon tackled Apple Bloom. The momentary distraction was sufficient for Scootaloo to sink her teeth into Diamond Tiara's foreleg, and she yelled in pain. Before Diamond Tiara could recover from the bite, Scootaloo threw her sideways, and the two ponies rolled into Apple Bloom and Silver Spoon. From there, it became a short-lived brawl that ended as quickly as it had begun.

"Girls!" loudly cut through the air, bringing the turbulent ball of fillies to a sudden stop. All four fillies looked up at a very angry Miss Cheerilee.

"Just what in Tartarus is going on here?"

All four fillies started to talk at once, each wildly gesturing, doing their best to lay the blame on the other side. Miss Cheerilee silenced them with a piercing burst from the whistle.

"One at a time. Starting with you, Diamond. And the rest of you sit quietly and wait your turn. You'll get your chance shortly."

"They stole my necklace!"

"What necklace?" Miss Cheerilee asked.

Diamond Tiara took a deep breath and started to explain, the words flowing out of her without thought. "Well, see, it all started with the talent show. We made a bet, but they sabotaged our act and so they won, and they made me go out with Snails to the dance even though I don't want to. At the dance Snails gave me the necklace, and then I saw Sweetie totally had a crush on Snails, so I pretended to like him to get back at them for cheating. And now they stole the necklace because I'm totally winning and they want to steal my fake boyfriend away from me."

She looked pleading at Miss Cheerilee, doing her best to apply all her charm, to make her see that she and Silver Spoon were not at fault, that all the blame lay on the crusaders. Miss Cheerilee was not, however, looking at her. Nor was the expression on her face what Diamond Tiara expected to see. It was not the anger that had been there, nor the understanding she had hoped to evoke.

It was a look she remembered well, for she had seen it before, on the day her mother had died. The look somepony gave that said they knew you were in pain, but that there was nothing they could do about it: Compassion mixed with an equal part helplessness.

Behind her, the door clicked shut. Diamond Tiara turned to see who was there, to see Snails standing there. His pack dropped to the ground, hitting with a thump and scattering its contents across the floor. With a look of utter heartbreak, he turned, shoved open the door, and ran off.

"Snails! No! Wait!" Diamond Tiara yelled, reaching out with one leg toward him, pleading for him to stop, but to no avail. Snails was the inverse of his namesake, moving faster than she had ever seen him go. As she watched, she felt compelled to whisper one last thing, even though she knew it would do no good, that he would not hear it, and even if he had, would not stop. "I can explain..."

For about ten seconds, there was silence, only for it to be broken by Scootaloo. "Hah! Serves you right."

With a roar of rage, Diamond Tiara launched herself at the crusaders, Silver Spoon only half a step behind.