A Taste of the Good Life

Main Course is a successful chef and restaurant owner. Or he was, anyway, until a fire tore up his life's work and left him adrift. When he visits his sister in the rural backwater town of Ponyville, he discovers an abandoned building that's perfect for a quick fix-up so he can flip it for a profit. But the building comes with an unforeseen tenant, and when he lets her stick around he discovers that maybe, just maybe, there's something out there more important than wealth and fame.

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1. When it Rains it Pours

WHEN IT RAINS, IT POURS

Main Course stood at the edge of a cordoned-off section of a Manehattan street, watching his life burn to the ground.

Fireponies armed with hoses, ladders, and storm clouds did their best to fight back the roaring flames flickering out of the splintered remains of what used to be the front door of his restaurant, The Grassy Knoll. They were clearly outmatched, and though the officer making sure the crowd stayed under control assured him that they were doing everything they could Main Course didn’t miss the way the team’s efforts had shifted from battling the blaze directly to keeping it from spreading to any nearby buildings. They knew a lost cause when they saw one.

A slip of paper, its edge blackened and burned, blew into his chest and caught in his dark blue coat. He pulled it off and glanced at it. The top line read ‘Tonight’s Specials:’ but everything below that was illegible. He looked up, but had to turn his face back down when the ashes that were falling over the crowd like so many snowflakes stung tears from his eyes. There was the sound of breaking glass as the carefully-painted window looking out from the dining room gave way under the heat and shattered. Seeing no reason to keep watching, Main Course turned away from the scene and trotted off after the ambulance.

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“Well, good morning Grace.”

The green unicorn’s eyes flickered open as she came to. Her hooves reached up and felt the bandages wrapped around her head, spotted in a few places with her blood. Her once-flowing yellow mane was charred and singed in the placed the doctors hadn’t shaved it away. But she was alive. “Main Course? What happened?”

“I was hoping you could tell me,” replied Main Course, laying a hoof on his longtime business partner’s foreleg, taking care to avoid the IV line feeding into her veins.

“I came in like usual to start prep work for dinner service. Everything seemed normal, and then I lit the pilot light on the stove and...” she trailed off.

“They’re guessing it was some kind of gas buildup or leak somewhere. They’ll know more once they’ve investigated,” said Main Course. “Still, at least nopony else was there when it happened or things could have been a lot worse.”

“Yeah. So, while they’re investigating, can we still use the rest of the kitchen? I don’t want to have to close down for the whole weekend while they do their thing,” said Grace.

Main Course had to smile a bit at that. Grace couldn’t stand not to open. “I wish it were just a weekend. The fire spread to the dining room, the offices, everywhere.”

“When you say everywhere...”

Main Course sighed. There really wasn’t any easy way to tell her this. “It’s all gone, Grace. Burned right down to the support beams. The Knoll’s gone.”

The screen monitoring Grace’s vitals began to beep faster and more erratically. “What? Gone? No, it can’t be. We finally just figured out what we were doing.” Tears started to stream down her cheeks and her breathing started to get raspy.

“Easy, easy,” cautioned Main Course. “Things’ll work out. This is just a setback, okay? We’re insured. We’ll shut down for a month, take a vacation, then lease a new location and get everything set up again. Hey, think about how nice it’ll be to have a weekend off for the first time in, what, two years? Go home, see if your kids remember your name or not,” he said, hoping his fake confidence was convincing.

Grace smiled through her tears. “Anypony ever tell you that your whole ‘always look on the bright side’ thing is really annoying?”

“Yeah, you might have mentioned it a few thousand times.” He leaned down and gave her a peck on the forehead. “Now brace yourself. Cherry is outside, and he freaked out pretty badly when I told him you’d gotten hurt. I wouldn’t be surprised if he tried to to hug you hard enough to break a few ribs.”

“I’ll take my chances,” she said. Main Course opened the door to the hospital room and looked down the hall towards the nurses station where a nervous-looking red earth pony was pestering one of the nurses for any information she could give him, and by the looks of it wasn’t getting anywhere.

Main Course waved and caught his attention. “She’s awake,” he called to him. The effect was immediate. Cherry spun away from the nurse mid-sentence and cantered a few steps down the hall, before abandoning dignity and breaking into a full gallop. He skidded to a stop in front of the room, but Main Course held up a hoof to forestall the next question. Instead, he just stepped aside and let Grace wave to him from the bed.

“Grace!” he cried out, lunging forward and, just as Main Course had suspected, wrapping her in a tight hug. “You’re okay! Oh, Princesses, I was so worried when they brought you in and they couldn’t wake you up...”

“Pssh,” said Grace, once Cherry had loosened his group enough that could speak again. “It was just a little explosion. Not that big of a deal.” Still, she was holding onto her husband just as tightly. “Berry and Windy?”

“My mom’s watching them. I can go get them and be back in an hour if you want to see them right away. Or they can spend the night there if you’d rather have some peace and quiet. Or—” his next sentence was cut off as Grace lifted her bruised and cut face up to his and kissed him.

“Just hold me, Cherry.”

They pulled back into their hug as Main Course looked on, a hundred contradictory emotions running through his mind. Then he quietly pulled the privacy curtain around the bed shut and slipped away.

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“What do you mean you aren’t going to pay the claim?” Main Course slammed his hooves down on the claims adjuster's desk, startling the little pegasus seated behind it. A small knick-knack, a paperweight proclaiming that the mare had been awarded ‘Employee of the month’ three years previously, tipped over as the impact shook the desk. He rose up to his full height. He was perfectly happy to use his above-average size to intimidate the other pony into giving him what he deserved.

The pegasus coughed gently into her hooves and trembled a little, but stood her ground. “Mr. Course, if you’d please calm down, that’s not what I said. What I said was we need to allow the police to finish their investigation and then look into the incident ourself to determine our liability.”

“What’s there to determine?” asked Main Course, his voice lowering into a threatening growl as he bit back his frustration. “We paid for fire insurance. I should know; I put the check in the mail every month on the eighth myself. There was a fire. Therefore, you give us the money to rebuild.”

“If only it were so straightforward. Our responsibility is partially or completely mitigated in instances of certain types of... let’s call it foul play. If, for example, there’s evidence that somepony might be attempting to benefit financially from an act of arson—”

“You need to be very, very careful with the rest of that sentence,” said Main Course. “A dear friend of mine was just released after three days in the hospital. She and myself are the two ponies who would ‘benefit financially’ from being paid what we’re owed, so either you’re accusing me of trying to kill her, or you’re accusing her of blowing herself up.”

“I am accusing nopony of anything. This is all standard procedure in these sorts of cases. Our investigators will go over the forensics, if any, as well as your financial records looking for red flags. If anything suspicious comes up, we’ll investigate further. Otherwise we’ll release the funds.” Her gaze softened, and a little bit of sympathy crept into her otherwise carefully neutral expression. “I am sorry, for what it’s worth. I can’t imagine how stressful this has all been for you. Hopefully we’ll be able to get everything squared away and release the funds to you in about six months.”

“Six months?” hissed Main Course, his anger rising all over again. “What the buck am I supposed to do until then?”

“That really isn’t my company’s concern,” said the mare as her face slipped back into the well-practiced dispassionate mask. “I’m afraid my hooves are tied.”

“This is ridiculous. I want to speak to your supervisor, now.”

She picked up a sheaf of papers and tapped the edges on her desk to even them out, unconsciously creating a small barrier between herself and Main Course. “He’ll only tell you the same thing. If I tried to circumvent the rules and pay you without a proper investigation, then I would be fired and you still wouldn’t get your money any more quickly. It’s not like I have the power to write you a check right now without our underwriters signing off.”

“This is crap! You’re all a bunch of worthless scam artists.”

“Sir, please watch your language. If you become threatening or belligerent I’ll have to ask security to remove you from the building. If you think I’m treating you unfairly, you’re welcome to contest my decision.”

Main Course felt a tiny spark of hope. “Of course I want to contest it!”

“Very well,” she said. She did a quick search through her desk drawers and pulled out a thick envelope, bulging at the seams with paperwork. She gave the contents of the pages a cursory glance before sliding the envelope across her desk. “Fill out these forms and return them to us. We’ll let you know the result of the appeal within six to eight weeks.”

Main Course stared down at the papers as the spark was snuffed out, leaving him feeling emptier than before. He got up and turned away from the agent’s desk. “Just forget it,” he said through gritted teeth as he moved to leave.

“Have a nice day, sir. I assure you that we’ll continue to work on your case in an attempt to reach an outcome that’s acceptable to all parties involved.” She frowned as Main Course stopped in her doorway for a moment. “Sir, making that gesture towards me isn’t helping your case.”

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

It was nearly sunset before Main Course returned to his apartment building. He’d taken a long walk to calm down after leaving the insurance company, enduring the cold of of the oncoming winter storm as the seething heat of his anger slowly dissipated with every step. As he walked in past the stoic doorpony holding the entrance open for him, he caught sight of his landlord and friend Rent Control in the lobby, putting on a hat and boots.

“Oh, hey Main. I was just about to leave for the night. Things go okay with your insurance claim?” One look at Main Course’s face, and his hopeful smile fell away. “That looks like a ‘no’ then.”

“It’s going to be months before I see a single bit, and in the meantime I’m unemployed.”

“You going to look for something temporary in the meantime? You’re a damn good cook, I’m sure some other restaurant would be happy to have you,” said Rent Control.

Main Course shook his head, scattering a few snowflakes that had gotten stuck in his light silver mane. “I don’t know. Most places probably aren’t going to want someone who’s going to take off on them in a few months. Which means, uh, we should probably talk about my rent situation?”

Rent Control winced. “Yeah, we probably should. I didn’t want to bring it up, but is that going to be an issue for you?”

“I’ve got some savings. Grace and I were paying ourselves pretty generously out of the Knoll’s profits. Still, I might be looking to downsize, at least for a while.”

“I wish I could let you stay here rent-free, Main, I really do. But I can’t afford that. The penthouse is prime real estate, and I’ve got bills to pay. I don’t really have any other vacant apartments right now that’d save you any money, but I can keep an eye out.” Main Course figured the look on his face must be pretty miserable, given the way Rent was looking at him. “Look, here’s what I can do. Technically, your lease isn’t up for, what, eight months? But if you need to break it, I won’t charge you any penalties or anything like that. I’ve even got some space in the basement if you want to store any extra stuff that won’t fit in a smaller pad. And if you need me to vouch for you with a new landlord, I will. I wish I had more tenants like you. Well, like you but, y'know, employed.”

Main Course chuckled. It wasn’t quite as much as he’d hoped for, but Rent Control’s offer was pretty generous given his circumstances. “Thanks. I really appreciate it.”

Rent Control glanced past him at the storm outside, which was starting to pick up. “No problem. I need to get going before the weather gets any worse or I’m gonna be sleeping in my office again, but drop in anytime you want to talk about it. Or anything else, for that matter.” He walked over to Main Course and reached up to give him an encouraging pat on the back. “And hey! Maybe now that you won’t be working every evening we can finally get you a date!”

Main Course's mind snapped back to the other day in the hospital room. Cherry and Grace had both seemed so content. So at peace despite the near-disaster that had almost separated them permanently. Why didn’t he have somepony like that? “Good night, Rent.”

The cold wind buffeted his back for a moment as Rent Control left for home. With a sigh, Main Course opened his mailbox and pulled out a small stack of bills, as well as an envelope with his sister’s name in the return address. He climbed the five flights of stairs to the top floor and unlocked his front door. As he stepped inside, specially enchanted lanterns lit up automatically, casting light across the spacious, open living room and into the hallway that led down to the bedroom and bathroom. The apartment was sparsely decorated, with an eye towards neutral colors and minimalist functionality rather than spectacle. Considering how little time he spent here, Main Course had never really felt the need to personalize it very much.

When he was home and not sleeping, he tended to hang around his kitchen playing with new recipes and flavor combinations. He dropped the mail on the counter along with the paperwork from the insurance office, which landed with a heavy thud. Most of the mail looked like bills and junk mail, so he dug his sister’s letter out of the pile and carried it over to the living room couch, a bulky white velour thing that had come with the apartment. He grabbed a banana from the fruit bowl on the nearby glass-topped coffee table and began to eat as he read.

Dear big brother,

Heard about the fire. That really sucks. Give my best to Grace. Good luck dealing with the insurance stuff; that can be kind of a nightmare if the company decides to drag their hooves. If you want somepony to send them a letter full of scary-sounding legal jargon, I’m your mare.

Speaking of, I haven’t seen you in forever! If you have some extra time before you’re going to reopen, you should come visit. My extra bedroom’s yours for as long as you want it. I know Ponyville isn’t quite as exciting as Manehattan, but I’m guessing you might be excitemented-out these days. Just something to keep in mind.

Your favorite little sister,

Silver Scroll

Main Course sighed as he reread the letter. It wasn’t the first time Silver Scroll had pestered him to come visit, but it might have been the first time he didn’t have a good reason not to go. The alternative was, what exactly? Sit alone in his apartment with just his thoughts for company until the insurance company sent a check? No thank you.

He walked over to the desk in the corner of the room, facing the picture window that looked out on a beautiful view of the Manehattan skyline. Right now, though, that view was obscured by the whirling snow blowing by, the howling winds occasionally making the pane of glass shudder under an especially strong gust. Main Course pulled out a blank sheet of paper and grabbed a quill between his teeth.

Dear favorite little sister,

Grace is fine, thank goodness. She got out of the hospital today, and she’s talking about teaching a course at the culinary academy for a semester while we wait for the insurance stuff to go through. I guess she used to work with somepony who’s been begging her to come be a guest instructor for a some time now, and this is as good a time as any.

I think a vacation is a great idea. I’d love to come see Ponyville. How’s this weekend sound? I’ll be on the first train Saturday morning. See you soon!

Your big brother,

Main Course

Skimming the letter for any spelling errors or other mistakes, Main Course stuck the note into a fresh envelope, addressed it, and carried it out to the hallway where a letter drop ran down all five floors into an outgoing mailbox for the whole building. He opened the mail slot, but hesitated. From what little he knew of Ponyville, it sounded like an awfully dull and backwater little town, though Silver Scroll swore up and down that it was a surprisingly eventful place given its size.

He shrugged. What did he really have to lose? He slid the letter into the mail drop and listened as it fluttered down to the ground floor before he let the flap close over the slot again. No going back now.

“Ponyville, here I come.”

 
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