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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2. A Dull Little Backwater Town

A DULL LITTLE BACKWATER TOWN

Main Course stepped off the train and into the morning sun. The train had been almost empty coming out, and as he looked out from the station’s single platform he was pretty sure he could guess why. When he’d left Manehattan the streets had been bustling, and that had been hours ago. Here, even well into the morning there were only a few ponies wandering about.

“Main Course!”

He turned towards the sound of the voice. There at the edge of the platform was a pink pegasus mare, with the same silver mane as his though hers was wrapped up in a loose bun. As she bounced up and down waving to him, the black horn-rimmed glasses she always wore were knocked slightly askew. As he trotted over to her she stopped to adjust them. “Hey, Silver Scroll.”

She rushed over and slammed into him, knocking over his suitcase as she wrapped him up in a hug. “Don’t you ‘hey’ me. Give your sister a hug, damn it.” Main Course grinned and did just that. “So,” she said as she let go of him, “let’s get the depressing stuff out of the way first. How bad was the damage from the fire? Give it to me straight.”

He sighed. “Total loss. Everything inside was destroyed, and it starting to look like they might have to tear down the whole building.”

“You never even finished paying off the business loan on the place, did you?”

“Nope. We still owe the bank something like 150,000 bits on a pile of ash.”

“Wow, that sounds awful,” she said, much too cheerfully. Main Course braced himself for what he knew was coming next. “I forget, who was it that wanted to use their own assets as collateral for that loan?”

“That’d be me,” said Main Course.

“Mmhmm.” Silver Scroll tapped her chin. “And remind me, who convinced you that forming a limited liability corporation to own the restaurant would protect you from, say, the bank coming after your personal assets if the place went belly up?”

“That was you, Silver Scroll.”

“So, basically, my legal superpowers totally saved your stupid plot. Would that be fair to say?”

“You aren’t planning on letting me forget that, are you?”

“Maybe in a couple decades, if I’m feeling charitable. You turned the insurance paperwork over to the bank like I told you to?”

“Day before yesterday.”

“Great! Then there’s nothing to do but sit back and let the two of them duke it out. It might take a while, but trust me when I say that they’re way better at dealing with that kind of thing than you would be.” She gave him a friendly, if slightly condescending, pat on the shoulder. “In the meantime, let me give you the grand tour of Ponyville.”

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

It wasn’t even noon by the time the poorly-named ‘grand tour’ came to an end. “Color me underwhelmed,” said Main Course as they stepped inside Silver Scroll’s house.

“What? It’s great here. You’re just too much of a city boy to appreciate a little peace and quiet once in awhile. It isn’t Manehattan, but come on. It has its own rustic charm. We even have our very own Princess who lives in the library. Top that.”

That gave Main Course pause. He’d read about the coronation in the newspapers, but it hadn’t ever struck him as something that would have an impact on his daily life. If a Princess thought this place was worthwhile, maybe he could let his first impressions slide. Hey, maybe he could even find some excuse to cook for her. A Princess’ endorsement would go a long way towards drumming up business after they reopened the—

“Hello? Equestria to Main Course,” said Silver Scroll. “You kinda drifted off on me there.”

“Sorry,” he said with a sheepish grin. “I was just thinking.”

She rolled her eyes. “About The Grassy Knoll, I bet. Since that’s the only thing you ever seem to think about.”

“That isn’t true,” said Main Course with a frown. “Running a restaurant is a lot of work. I have to think about it a lot or the place falls apart around me.”

“News flash. Right now the business you’re so preoccupied with running is a pile of cinders,” she said. Main Course opened his mouth to protest, but Silver Scroll put a hoof under his chin and closed it before he could get any words out. “Sorry to put it so harshly, but my point is that worrying all the time won’t bring it back any faster. Try living in the moment for the next few days. Now, aren’t you going to compliment me on how nice my house is?”

Main Course realized that he hadn’t even been paying attention since he walked in. He took a quick look around and nearly brought a foreleg up to shield his eyes as they registered the eye-searing decor around him. “It’s... really pink.” Not just any pink, either. The couch, loveseat, carpet, and the walls were all the brightest pastel pink color Main Course could imagine. A lone wooden end table with a dark-stained finish was the one holdout, struggling valiantly but uselessly to restore sanity to the room.

“What’s wrong with pink?” she asked.

“Nothing, but that’s a lot of it. It’s a little overwhelming, isn’t it?”

“Is it? I guess I’m just used to it. Your room is tamer. Only the bedspread is pink. Well, the bedspread and the lamp. Well, the bedspread, the lamp, and the curtains. Come to think of it, it really isn’t much tamer at all.”

“First thing tomorrow, we’re buying you some throw pillows or something. In a color that isn’t pink.” He tried to look directly at the pink expanse that his mind had given up trying to distinguish in any detail beyond ‘yeah, that’s pink,’ for no other detail could possibly be relevant in comparison to the magnitude of its pinkness. “Or maybe this afternoon, even.”

Silver Scroll made a grumpy, disapproving sigh at the assessment. “Well, I like it.”

“You’re weird, sis.” Whatever she was about to say in reply was cut off by a loud gurgling sound coming from his stomach. “Wow, I’m starving. Anything good to eat around here?”

Silver Scroll perked right up at the change of topic. “Yeah! I could go for lunch too. I’ll take you to the best little cafe in town. Everypony loves it there.”

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

“Wow. I don’t love this,” said Main Course, two bites into his lily-and-rosebud sandwich. “Like, I really don’t love this. At all.”

Silver Scroll glared at him from across the table. “Well, my soup is delicious.”

“Mind if I try? Trade you a bite of my sandwich.”

“Deal,” she said and pushed her bowl towards him and took a big bite of his sandwich in exchange. “What are you complaining about? This tastes fine.”

Main Course took a spoonful of soup and swished it around his mouth, his practiced tongue searching for the taste of each ingredient a good minestrone should have. He swallowed and made a face. “Way too salty. And like you said, the food is fine. Nopony deserves to pay the sort of prices they’re charging here for ‘fine.’ Any amateur could throw a better sandwich together in their kitchen, in half the time they’d wait for it here and for way less money.”

“Look around. I don’t see anypony else complaining. Sorry if the food isn’t good enough for your delicate palate.”

“Only because they probably don’t know any better.”

“Oh, yeah. They live way out in the sticks, so they must be stupid, right? Not like you sophisticated city ponies.”

“That’s not what I said,” protested Main Course.

“No. It’s just what you meant.” Silver Scroll took her napkin off her lap and threw it down on the tabletop. “I lost my appetite. Enjoy your stupid not-good-enough meal. Or don’t, I don’t care.” She stood up and marched out of the cafe, leaving a stunned Main Course in her wake.

He fished some bits out of his coin sack and dropped them on the table before chasing after her. “Silver, what’s wrong? What did I do?”

Silver Scroll glanced at the ponies on either side of her, then flicked a wing towards the alleyway that ran alongside the cafe. She trotted over with Main Course following, stopping a few lengths into the alley and wheeling around, rage painted across her face. “What’s with the attitude, huh? Ever since you got here you’ve done nothing but complain about the town and the ponies who live here. Well guess what? I’m one of the ponies who live here, and I love this town. I’m trying to show you what’s special about it, but you’re so wrapped up in your own preconceptions and the stupid bucking Knoll that you won’t even look.”

Main Course’s first inclination was to tell Silver she didn’t know what she was talking about. But then he tried to think back to the way he’d been acting since he got off the train. Maybe his sister had a point. “I guess maybe I have been kind of a jerk. I’m sorry, Silver, and I certainly didn’t mean any of it to be a slight against you. He walked over and put a foreleg around her shoulders. “How’d you get to be so much smarter than me, anyway?”

She grinned through her tears. “Wasn’t hard, since you try as hard as you can to be such an idiot.”

“How can I make it up to you?”

“You could say that my town is nice, and that my house isn’t too pink.”

Main Course smiled and ran a hoof up and down her side. “This town is pretty nice, I just haven’t gotten used to it yet. But I’m standing my ground on the pink thing. That’s pretty bad.”

She groaned and sank to the ground, covering her face with her wings. “I know. I can’t figure out how I missed seeing it before you pointed it out, or what I was thinking when I put it together.”

“We’ll figure something out. Now come on, let’s go pick up some ingredients at the market and I’ll make us some real food at home.

Silver Scroll dried her tears and nodded, trotting down the alley. Emerging out the other side, the two siblings hung a left and took a circuitous route around the residential section of town. Silver pointed out the homes of several of her friends, and it didn’t escape Main Course’s notice that she described quite a few of them using synonyms for ‘cute’ and ‘single.’ They had almost reached the marketplace itself when one particular building caught his eye.

It was dirty, run down, and clearly in poor repair. The small front yard was overgrown with thorns and weeds, and the broken windows were boarded up. If Main Course made his guess, it had once been painted green but now was worn down to the bare wood. A mailbox on a post only barely stuck out of the tall grass that obscured the path leading up to the front door. “What’s the deal with this place?” asked Main Course.

“Hmm? That place? Well, that’s basically ‘Exhibit A’ of why nopony opens new restaurants around here anymore. That’s the last place that tried. The owner ran it for six months, then two years ago he vanished. The Guard came sniffing around about a week after he left town, so he might have been up to something, but I don’t really know the whole story. It’s condemned, and they would have torn it down a year ago except nopony can agree who should pay for the demolition. Now c’mon. I want to get to the market before the Apple family cart runs dry. You have got to try these apples.”

Main Course didn’t move from the spot. He just stared at the abandoned house. “Do you think anypony would mind if I took a glance inside?”

Silver Scroll looked back at him like he was crazy, which, upon reflection, wasn’t an unreasonable conclusion. “You want to go inside the broken down, condemned building nopony’s touched for a year? You do know what ‘condemned’ means, right? It means ‘we’re gonna knock this down before it kills somepony who’s stupid enough to say things like ‘Do you think anypony would mind if I took a glance inside?’”

“You can wait out here. I’ll be right back,” said Main Course. With a rustle, he disappeared into the grass.

“Main! Main Course, get back here!” Silver Scroll called after him and stamped her hoof against the sidewalk. When nopony answered, she muttered something under her breath that their mother would not be happy if she overheard and followed him. She caught up at the front door, where Main Course was fiddling with the doorknob through the yellow ‘CAUTION!’ tape that was crossed over it. “Are you insane?”

“Oh, where’s your sense of adventure? It’ll be like when we explored the old cave in the woods behind our house as foals.”

“I broke my leg in that cave,” said Silver Scroll.

“Fine, bad example.” The knob clicked and the door creaked as it opened into a dusty foyer. Main Course ducked under the tape and Silver Scroll followed, still muttering. Inside, the only light came from the dirty windows, giving the whole room a gloomy atmosphere of deep shadows despite the brightness outside.

Silver Scroll reached a wing out to touch Main Course’s back, just reassuring herself he was really there. “I really don’t like this, Main.”

“What do you think is upstairs?” he asked, too wrapped up in his curiosity to heed her concern.

“Living space, probably. I’ll pull a floorplan from Town Hall for you to look at, let’s just go.”

“Lemme take a quick look,” he said. He put his weight on the first step of the staircase, and there was a threatening creak and the sound of wood breaking. He cautiously backed off. “Actually, I want to check out the kitchen and dining area first.” The two cautiously stepped through a nearby archway and Main Course gasped. Beyond it was a huge room, far bigger than he would have expected from the building’s front. Based on the overturned and cracked tables, if had clearly been the main dining room. “Whoa. You could seat a hundred ponies in here.”

“Yeah, if they don’t mind eating in a disaster zone,” mumbled Silver Scroll, but her protests were losing their bite. She couldn’t deny that the place might have a certain charm beneath the grunge.

“And here’s the kitchen,” said Main Course as he looked through the wide open service window. “It looks like the doorway’s blocked. Help me up over the counter.”

“Just for the record, you’re going to get hurt if we keep going. And while I love you dearly, I’m still going to laugh at you and say ‘I told you so.’”

“Duly noted. Now boost.”

Silver Scroll braced Main Course’s hind leg with her hooves and lifted as he pushed off, his momentum carrying him a little farther over the counter than he’d planned. He landed on the hard tile floor with a thud and a grunt.

“I told you so.”

“I’m fine, thanks for asking,” said Main Course as he rose to his hooves and examined the kitchen. His eyes lit up as he spotted the oven in the corner. “Whoa! A Beaklicker 3500!”

“Am I supposed to know what that is?” asked Silver Scroll from the other room.

“It’s an oven. They don’t even make them here in Equestria, you have to import them. Bit of an older model, but reliable.” He fiddled with the knobs, and his ears perked up at the familiar hissing sound. “Hey, the gas is still hooked up too.”

“Are you insane? Don’t turn on the gas!”

Main Course just twisted the controls back to ‘OFF’ and moved over to the sink. Turning the knobs, the faucet let out a sickly gurgling for several seconds before it began to vomit out brown, sludgy water. “Pipes must be rusted.” He leaned against the countertop, which let out a creak of protest but held his weight, and looked around. He saw decay. He saw neglect. He saw at least four major building code violations. He saw black spots on the drywall that were almost certainly mold.

More than anything else, though, he saw potential.

“Alright, let’s get out of here,” he said as he used a piece of rubble that had fallen from the ceiling some time ago as a stepping stone to boost him back through the service window.

“About time,” said Silver Scroll as she caught him and helped lower him on the other side. She took one look at him and groaned.

“What?”

“You’re making that face.”

“I’m not making any face. What face?”

“Your ‘I have an idea that isn’t as clever as I think it is’ face.”

Main Course scoffed a bit too loudly. “That’s not a face. I don’t make a face like that.”

“If you say so. Can we just go?”

In response, Main Course turned and left the way they came in, carefully studying the damaged building around them. He stepped carefully over the caution tape at the front entrance, and helped Silver Scroll do the same. “So, um, Silver...” he began, trying to choose his words as carefully as he could while they pushed through the overgrown vegetation, “...how hard would it be for you to get me an appointment to talk to the mayor? I’ll owe you one.”

She sighed as they emerged on the street in front of the abandoned building. “Celestia preserve me. You do have an idea.”

“It’s a good one, I promise.”

“I guarantee it isn’t.”

“It so is.”

“It so isn’t.”

They continued squabbling as they walked down the street, and consequently neither of them glanced back at the house they’d just broken into. If they had, one of them might have noticed the silhouette that appeared in the second story window, and a few minutes later vanished just as quickly.

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

“I’ve mentioned that this is a terrible idea, right?” asked Silver Scroll as she sank a bit lower in her chair. She glanced around the office waiting room to see if anypony was listening, but all the other ponies waiting there seemed absorbed in their own thoughts and troubles.

“For the last time, I know what I’m doing,” said Main Course from next to her, not bothering to look up from the outdated magazine he was reading as he did.

“Sure. Why not. There’s a first time for everything, after all.”

Main Course had just opened his mouth to protest when another voice rang out through the waiting room. “Main Course and Silver Scroll? Mayor Mare is ready for you now.”

“Guess that’s our cue,” said Main Course, folding up his reading material and rising from his seat.

Main Course could almost hear Silver Scroll biting her tongue as the secretary led them into the Mayor’s office. He would have smiled at his sister’s self-evident discomfort if he didn’t need to project a no-nonsense attitude to get away with this.

“Silver Scroll! Wonderful to see you again,” said Mayor Mare as they walked into her office. The walls were covered in photographs. Mayor Mare at some ancient ribbon-cutting ceremony. Mayor Mare in an action pose, directing the Guard on the fateful night of Nightmare Moon’s return. Mayor Mare shaking hooves with Princess Celestia and beaming at the camera. The common theme of all the picture was clear. “It’s been too long.” The Mayor got to her hooves and planted fake kisses on each of her cheeks.

“Of course, Mayor. I’d like to introduce my brother Main Course. He’s from Manehattan.”

“Manehattan! What a wonderful city. A pleasure to meet you,” said Mayor Mare. “So how can I help you today?” she asked as she settled back into her seat, her forelegs crossed.

“Well,” Main Course began, “I wanted to speak to you about that one building on Rockefilly Street. The abandoned one.”

Mayor Mare chuckled. “Oh, that old thing? I assure you, we’re about to tear it down. There have been a few... complications along the way, but I assure you they’re nearly resolved.”

“Well, that’s too bad,” said Main Course, “because I came here today to acquire it.”

A long silence fell over the room before Mayor Mare let out a chuckle, somehow less gleeful than her earlier gestures. “That deathtrap? You’ll forgive me for asking why you’d want it?”

“Why else? To fix it up and make it into what it was originally intended to be. A restaurant for the citizens of Ponyville,” said Main Course.

He’d expected the Mayor to laugh again, but she didn’t. She steepled her hooves and glared at him instead. “The property was abandoned some time ago, and any pony claiming it would owe sizable back taxes. 50,000 bits, roughly.”

Silver Scroll went pale at the number, but Main Course just laughed aloud. “What, is that all?”

The Mayor turned to him, a quizzical expression on her face. “You have so much money onhoof that the sum seems minor to you?”

“Huh? Oh, no, I don’t have that kind of cash to burn. I was just wondering, since you’re talking about charges that nopony will ever pay you for that beaten-down piece of crap, why wouldn’t you aim higher? Say that the back taxes were a million bajillion bits, you’re just as likely to find a buyer at that price as at 50,000.”

“I assure you, the figure was reached by a fair calculation of the market—”

“I’ll give you five thousand,” said Main Course, cutting her off.

The Mayor studied him carefully for several seconds, while Main Course leaned back and Silver Scroll tightened her grip on the armrests of her chair. “That would not cover the debt the previous owner accumulated.”

“So? You aren’t talking to the previous owner. You’re talking to me. I’m offering you five grand for the property with a clean slate. If you want to go after the other stallion for the 45,000 difference then knock yourself out. It doesn’t concern me. Give me one year, and I’ll turn the place around.”

“It seems to me that I’d be taking a rather large hit if I allowed that transaction to go through. I’m owed 50,000,” said Mayor Mare.

“If you had any way to collect that debt, you would have by now,” said Main Course. “The way I see it, there are three possibilities: First possibility, you reject my offer. You’re on the hook for the cost of tearing the building down, you get no revenues from anypony, and you have to find somepony to care for the open lot or let it grow wild. Second possibility, you accept my offer and I fail. You get 5,000 bits up front, and if I haven’t improved the property to your satisfaction within a year, I’ll hoof it over to you. Cleaned up, with whatever improvements I’ve managed to make. You risk nothing. All it’ll take is, say a majority vote at a Town Hall meeting? That doesn’t seem so onerous, does it?” He leaned back in his chair, and matched the Mayor’s gaze. The office went quiet for several minutes, and Silver Scroll squirmed in her chair.

The Mayor broke the silence first. “You said three possibilities.”

Main Course suppressed a grin. He was the only pony in the room that knew he had already won. “Third possibility, I pull this off. I build a successful business from a pile of junk. You look like a visionary for believing in me. Everypony’s property value goes up. Your tax revenues are that much stronger next year and every year thereafter while my business lasts.” He spread his hooves in from of himself and shrugged. “Seems to me that it’s a wash, a win, or a win for you, respectively. I’m the one taking the risk.”

The clock on the wall ticked away for several seconds longer, and Mayor Mare started to giggle. Then her giggle turned into a deep-throated laugh. “Oh, my goodness,” she said wiping a tear from her eye. “I have an uncle from Manehattan, but I’ll admit that I forgot just how... direct... you city folk could be. I must admit it’s refreshing.”

Silver Scroll gaped across the desk. “So... does that mean...”

“Five thousand bits, deposited with a city clerk within the next three days and not a second later. No checks, no credit, just cash. You want to throw yourself into that money pit? Knock yourself out.” She grinned at Main Course in a way that made him a little less sure that his victory had been quite as complete as he’d thought. “So, just out of curiousity, what’s this restaurant of yours going to be called?”

Main Course gulped. “The Grassy Knoll, Mayor Mare.”

“Well then,” she replied with a wicked grin. “I wish you only the best of luck, Mr. Course. I expect you’ll need it.”

 

 

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