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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7. An Unexpected Reunion

AN UNEXPECTED REUNION

“No,” moaned Scootaloo, burying her face into Main Course’s coat. “You can’t be here. You can’t.”

“Citrine, oh Citrine you’re alive. Thank the Princesses,” said Ebby. Tears began to flow down her cheeks, but she smiled. “I love you, Citrine. I thought... I thought I’d never get the chance to tell you that again.” She took a step closer.

“Stay away! Stay away from me!” screamed Scootaloo. “Main Course, don’t let her get me. Don’t let her take me.”

“What in Equestria is going on? Who’s Citrine?” asked Rarity.

“That’s my daughter, Citrine,” said Ebby. “She ran away from home years ago, and I thought she was gone forever. This is so wonderful. Citrine, I promise things are going to be different now. Your father’s gone, last I heard he’s living in Baltimare with his new wife. We don’t have to be afraid of him anymore. No more drinking, either.”

“You’ve promised me that before,” muttered Scootaloo.

Ebby’s horn glowed and Scootaloo screamed again as the magic wrapped around her and began to pull her off Main Course’s  back. The screams only stopped when he grabbed the hovering filly in his forelegs and pulled her back. Ebby’s magic dissipated as she realized she wouldn’t win a direct tug-of-war, and would only hurt Scootaloo in the process.

Rarity walked over to stand beside Main Course and Scootaloo. “Scootaloo, is this true? Is this your mother?” Scootaloo nodded, wrapping herself tighter in Main Course’s hug. “I see.” Rarity turned back to Ebby and gave her a pleasant smile. “Lady Ebony, I’m happy to report that the dress is yours, no charge. Please take it, leave my Boutique, and never come back here again.”

Ebby was taken aback. “But my daughter—”

“Scootaloo has told us exactly what you were like, and what you did to her,” interrupted Rarity. Her smile didn’t waver for an instant. “Now perhaps I wasn’t clear a moment ago. Get out of my home, you heinous bitch.”

Ebby’s jaw dropped, but she collected herself quickly. “I’m not leaving here without my daughter,” she said. She crouched down, a wild look in her eyes.

Main Course and Rarity began to circle her warily. If this turned into a struggle, Main didn’t want Scootaloo around to see it, or get hurt. When he was close to the front door he glanced down at her. “Scoots, I want you to run. Hide. Come back to the Knoll later tonight. Or if you can find Dash tell her to put you up in her cloud house,” he whispered.

Scootaloo didn’t have to be told twice. She lunged for the door and flung it open as Ebby screamed. “No! No, Citrine, come back! We can talk about—” Scootaloo slammed the door behind her and Main Course stood in front of it as Ebby’s words turned into howls of raw agony.

Rarity fearlessly strode over to her. “Calm yourself right now. What you did to that filly was monstrous, and if you think either of us would allow you endanger her again you’re quite mistaken.”

Ebby took a deep breath, still staring at Main Course and the door beyond him. “I’m not that pony anymore. I was in a very, very dark place for a few years. I lost somepony very important to me in an awful way. I know that doesn’t excuse what I did, but now? Now I can finally make it up to her.”

“It’s not that simple,” said Main Course. “If I hadn’t discovered her when I did and taken her in, she could have died this winter.”

Ebby sniffled. “You... you took her in?” she asked. Realization dawned on her face. “Scootaloo. Of course. You mentioned her at the party. I owe you a debt I can’t ever repay, don’t I?” She walked over to him. He tensed up, but all she did was gently brush his cheek with her hoof. “Thank you. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. You’re really something special, Main Course.” He didn’t answer, and she leaned in and pressed her lips to his.

The kiss wasn’t passionate, but it was intense. Her soft lips parted ever-so-slightly as he felt himself begin to respond in kind. There was kindness, and genuine appreciation behind that kiss. It was slow and lingering, and it lit up his mind like nothing he’d felt for a long time.

It also left him completely open to the hoof she slammed into his gut.

Main Course cried out and collapsed. “I’m sorry, Main,” said Ebby somewhere above him. “I won’t lose her again.” The bell jingled again as she raced through the door calling out for Scootaloo to stop.

He groaned and rolled over, but a moment later felt Rarity tugging on him. “Ugh, stallions. Get up, Main, we need to hurry.” Staggering up onto his hooves, the two followed her out into the street. They spotted her black tail rounding a corner a few blocks away.

“I’m going after Scootaloo, you go find help,” said Main Course. Rarity nodded and took off in another direction as Main Course chased after Ebby. He quickly discovered that she’d managed to lose herself in the crowded marketplace.

“Citrine! Citrine, where are you? Where are you?”

Turning to the sound of the voice, he spotted her. She’d managed to shimmy herself halfway up a lamppost, tearing open the side of her dress in the process. The unusual sight quickly became the center of the town’s attention, and ponies around him began to mutter to one another about seeking out the Guard.

Main Course trotted into the open space around the lamppost while Ebby’s calls for her daughter became increasingly shill and desperate. Through the rip in the dress, he saw that her side bore several old scars, a half-dozen little white lines criss-crossing her orange coat. “Ebby?” he asked. For a second he thought she hadn’t heard him, but then her mad gaze locked onto him.

You,” she hissed. “You won’t take her away from me. Not now. Not after so long.”

“Ebby, come down, okay? Maybe I was too hasty back there. Now that Scootaloo is safe—”

HER NAME IS CITRINE, DAMN IT!” she screamed, leaning out towards him. As she did, her grip on the pole slipped away, and she fell into a muddy, slushy puddle below. Main Course offered her a hoof, but she just lay there bawling and thrashing around in her rage and frustration. A few minutes later, two guards arrived. She didn’t resist as they pulled her up onto her hooves and led the sobbing mare away through the crowd.

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

“Yeah, you’re all pretty much bucked,” said Silver Scroll. “In my professional legal opinion, of course.”

Main Course, Rarity, and Rainbow Dash all groaned in unison as Silver Scroll took a sip of her tea and placed the cup and saucer back on the table the four of them were seated around. “You know, I was hoping that you’d be bit more helpful than that,” he said.

“Well, you could use the threat of pressing an assault charge as some kind of leverage against her, but that’s pretty thin. Meanwhile, she’s got you pretty much dead to rights on kidnapping charges. Rainbow Dash, for you it’s even worse because you’re actively harboring her in your house,” said Silver Scroll.

“Protecting a filly from her abuser is hardly kidnapping,” said Rarity.

Alleged abuser. Your only chance of proving any of that in court is to turn Scootaloo over to the state and let them decide what to do with her. At that point it’s anybody’s guess where she’ll end up. Probably with some distant relative back in Canterlot, or with her father,” said Silver Scroll.

“No way is that happening,” said Rainbow Dash. “Now we know who she is, and if she comes to take Scoots away Main and I’ll serve up a ten-decker pain sandwich.”

“That would make things worse in so many ways I don’t even know where to begin. None of you should initiate any sort of contact with her.”

“Oh, come now. She seemed like a very reasonable pony when we were chatting during her fitting,” said Rarity. She winced. “I do so wish I hadn’t lost my temper with her back there. Seeing her try to grab at Scootaloo while she screamed... it may have led me to make an error in judgement.”

“No way, I think that was a totally awesome putdown,” said Rainbow Dash, “and I don’t even know what ‘heinous’ means. After what she did to Scoots, though? She deserved it.”

The two continued to go back and forth on whether Rarity’s words had been appropriate, but Main Course’s mind drifted. He tried to reconcile the friendly, cheerful mare he’d met that night at the bar with Scootaloo’s description of the awful things she’d done. And of course, that kiss kept pushing insistently towards the front of his mind.

“Hey, lover colt. Focus,” said Silver Scroll.

“I wasn’t—”

“Yeah you were, Main.”

“This legal mumbo jumbo may be cool for all you eggheads, but why don’t we just ask Twilight to use that new crown of hers and say Scootaloo doesn’t have to go anywhere?” asked Rainbow Dash.

“Princesses have to follow the laws too, Dash,” said Silver Scroll.

“Ugh! Then what’s even the point?”

“None of this is getting us anywhere,” said Main Course. “Look, we know Ebony checked in at a hotel after the guards let her go, but we don’t know what her next move is going to be. Until we do, I think Scootaloo needs to be with one of us whenever she’s not in school so Ebby can’t swoop in and take her away.”

“She can’t stay with me,” said Silver Scroll. The other three turned to her in shock. “I know how that sounds, but if things start to go wrong I’m going to be able to do a whole lot more to help you and her if I haven’t been arrested as an accomplice. I’ll see if I can get the paperwork going for some sort of temporary guardian to be appointed for her while we hash this all out, but if I’m an involved party myself things become problematic.”

Rarity sighed. “I foresee a great many Crusader sleepovers at my boutique. Very well.”

“Yeah, count me in, too,” said Rainbow.

“Thanks, it means a lot to me to have you two helping out with this. I guess now there’s not much to do except sit back and wait to see what Ebby does next.”

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

Three days later, the frustrating answer to the question of what Ebby would do next appeared to be ‘not much of anything, really.’ Nopony he’d talked to reported seeing her around town, but it seemed strange that she would just vanish after finding out her daughter was alive after all this time. They stuck to their precautions, which was why Main Course had a grumbly little filly standing next to him just after dawn on Winter Wrap Up day, methodically cutting the tops out of bolles of bread. “Stupid Mom,” she muttered. “Stupid Mom coming back and making me have to cut stupid bowls out of stupid bread instead of helping with the wrap up like everypony else.”

“Hey, we are helping. All those ponies are gonna get hungry, right? We’re gonna make the best food we can for them so they can take a break and get right back out there,” said Main Course.

“I don’t see why I couldn’t help Rainbow Dash doing real stuff instead of just this,” she replied.

“Rainbow has a whole team to supervise. She doesn’t have time to watch you.” He returned to stirring the giant pot of soup, a creamy barley and vegetable medley, while Scootaloo continued her moping. “Scootaloo, if your Mom does come back again, are you sure you won’t talk to her? I could be there with you if you wanted, and I wouldn’t let her take you anywhere. You could just talk.”

“I told you, no. I don’t ever want to see her again. At all. Ow!” Scootaloo dropped the knife that had just bitten into her skin as her cut began to bleed.

Main Course grabbed a paper towel and pressed it against her foreleg. “Let me see... this doesn’t look too bad. Come on, let’s go clean it and I’ll get you a bandage. He left her holding it under the running water while he grabbed a cloth bandage and medical tape out of the nearby first aid kit. When he turned back to her, he found that she was quietly sobbing over the sink. Concerned, he took another look at her cut, but when he touched her foreleg she grabbed him and pulled him into a hug.

“I hate her,” she whispered as he returned the hug, ignoring the drops of blood seeping into his coat. “I hate her so much.”

“Don’t hate her, Scootaloo,” he replied. “You’ll never have to see her again if I have anything to say about it, but giving your memories of her that much power over you isn’t a good idea either. I don’t think she wanted to cause you any of this pain you’re in, okay?”

“But she did! So why does it matter if she wanted to or not? It would have been better if she’d never existed.”

Main Course couldn’t help but laugh. “Well, if she hadn’t existed then neither would you, so no matter what she did do at least one really great thing.” He wrapped the bandage around the cut a few times, and the bleeding slowed to a stop. “And guess what? Now that you’ve cut yourself doing prep work you’re officially an honorary chef.”

She tilted her head to one side. “Huh?”

“That’s how it works. It’s like a rite of passage. Every chef picks up a few nicks and cuts over the years, that’s just life. But we just wash ourselves up and go right back to work,” he said. Well, there was also a great deal of cursing that was usually involved, but Main Course thought it would be prudent not to mention that.

Scootaloo stared down at the little pink spot on the bandage. “So I’m a chef now?”

“You sure are! Now do me a favor and go stir that soup pot while I wash my hooves. I don’t want it to burn.”

He scrubbed his hooves clean and wiped them dry before returning to his work. A quick peek through the window showed the sun getting higher, and soon it would be time for the wrap up teams to meet in front of the Town Hall. “Main Course? Are you going to get in trouble for not letting Mom come see me?”

He kept his expression carefully neutral, but inside he was groaning. Where did she pick up on that? “You let me worry about that.”

“It’ll be spring tomorrow, so the weather’ll be getting nicer. I could... I could run away again if you wanted me to. That way Mom couldn’t take me, but you wouldn’t have to get in trouble either.”

“Scootaloo! Of course I don’t want you to run away from here,” said Main. He looked down and saw she was smiling up at him, even though her lips were quivering.

“It w-wouldn’t be so bad. I’m used to it, and that way you could run your restaurant and be happy.”

“No I couldn’t, Scootaloo.” He bent down and kissed her on the cheek. “I couldn’t be happy if I didn’t have you, especially knowing you were out there without a proper home. You and I are going to stick together no matter what, understand?”

She nodded and smiled. “Got it. Thanks, Da—” she slapped her hoof over her mouth.

“You can call me that if you want to, Scoots. I wouldn’t mind,” he said quietly. He felt the blood pounding in his ears and found he was desperate to hear her do just that.

“Thanks, Daddy,” she whispered.

The two of them sat on the floor hugging one another. The soup simmered away on the stove, and the meeting in front of Town Hall came and went. Nopony noticed that the crowd was missing two ponies in particular.

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

By the end of Winter Wrap Up day, Main Course was bone-tired. Ponies had been coming through all day for free food, and every bit of it that he’d prepared over the last three days had been picked clean. Scootaloo was off to spend the night at Rarity’s so that he could sleep in instead of walking her to school. He’d given the staff the next morning off, too. He’d skip opening for lunch and just do a dinner service. All that was left was to mop up the snow and mud everypony had tracked through the place, then his bed called to him.

To his annoyance, somepony knocked on the door. “We’re closed!” He called out over his shoulder. But the knocking continued. When he turned to see who it was, he saw Ebby’s smiling face on the other side of the door. He paused for a long minute, then unlocked the door and opened it. “Scootaloo isn’t here, Ebby.”

“I didn’t come to talk to her tonight, I’m here to talk to you. Can I come in?”

“If I say no are you going to kiss me and punch me in the gut again?” he asked, leaning his weight on the upright mop.

“I can skip the punching you in the gut part this time, if you’d prefer. The first bit was pretty enjoyable, I thought.”

He felt the corner of his mouth twitch into the first hints of a smile. “Yeah, come on in. Watch your step on the floors.”

Ebby walked into the Knoll, the white robe she wore gliding a few inches above the wet floor. Main Course led her to a table near the wall, and pulled her chair out for her. “What a gentlecolt,” she remarked as he took his own seat in turn. Her easy smile got a bit more eager. “I don’t suppose that Citrine has changed her mind about me over the last few days?”

“I’m sorry, Ebby. She doesn’t ever want to see you again, and I’m not going to make her.”

“Main Course, I don’t want us to be enemies,” she said as she reached out and placed a hoof over his. “I wasn’t lying when I said that I owed you a debt, or when I said you were special. But I’m not going to give up on this. Couldn’t you try to persuade her just to talk to me? If I just had the chance to show her that I’ve changed I think I could win her over.”

“I don’t think you really appreciate the full extent of the damage you did to her. How many times did you promise her that you’d changed only to go back on that?”

“I’m sure your sister the lawyer explained that, legally, I hold pretty much all the cards here,” she said. His surprise must have been obvious, because she continued. “What do you think I’ve been doing over the last few days? You and Citrine caught me by surprise the other day, and I think we can all agree it went poorly. I looked into you so that wouldn’t happen again.”

“So you know all about me, and I know nothing about you except what Scootaloo’s told me. Her story doesn’t exactly make you look good.”

She shrugged. “So ask me whatever you want. You’ve heard the worst of it, I have no reason to lie to you.”

“Alright,” said Main Course. “What’s the real deal with Scootaloo’s father?”

She flinched. “That’s a long story.”

“Somepony once said to me that the ones worth telling usually are.”

“Fair enough,” she said with a grin. She settled back in her chair. “I come from a relatively minor noble family with some landholdings in the forests to the west, but our clan has always been eager to climb the social ladder. My parents managed to win the favor of an older and more powerful family, and they cobbled together an alliance with them. I won’t bore you with the details, they don’t really matter. But to seal the deal they married me off to a stallion a decade older than me who I’d never met before my wedding day. He's called Count Obsidian.”

“Geez, and you went along with it?” asked Main Course.

“It was drilled into my head from early on that helping the family grow more powerful was the thing that mattered, and I had just reached marriageable age. It’s what I expected from my life. Move into a manor, birth a few heirs, then linger around Canterlot amusing myself with gossip and palace intrigue. Only one little thing went wrong.”

“What was that?”

Ebby’s smile turned wistful. “I fell in love. Even worse, with a musician who didn’t have a drop of noble blood in his body. He opened up a whole world of adventure and excitement to me, and my sheltered little filly heart never stood a chance.”

“This was Scootaloo’s ‘Uncle’ Snare Drum, I take it?” asked Main Course.

“Indeed it was. With his purple mane, wings, and an ‘I-can-take-on-the-world' attitude. Sound familiar?”

“The Count must not have been too happy about that.”

“Oh, we had an arrangement. He had quite a few consorts of his own over the years, and some of them I even count among my dearest friends to this day. But there were two conditions. The first was discretion, and the second was a legitimate heir. We failed both. Snare Drum absolutely adored Citrine. He even used to take her up flying with him, or out into town. It was hard for ponies not to notice the resemblance. I was young and too foalish to realize what sort of damage I was doing to the Count’s reputation, and to him reputation is absolutely everything. Despite his best efforts, I wasn’t getting pregnant again, either. Not a recipe for a happy Count.”

“No, I guess it wouldn’t be.”

“So he was a cold and distant father, but I didn’t care. But then Snare Drum went and did something very, very stupid. He’d been getting away with this lifestyle for long enough that I guess he thought my protection made him invincible, or something. We threw a banquet for a few hundred ponies and I arranged for his band to play at it, which wasn’t unusual in and of itself. Social event of the month. All of our friends, allies, and ponies we wanted to impress were there. Then, in the middle of after-dinner drinks, he got up and announced that he wanted to play a new original song of his, as a special thanks to the generous host.”

“What was wrong with that?”

“The song was called ‘The Cuckold Count.’”

Main Course sucked the air through his front teeth. “Ooh.”

“Yeah. By the middle of the second verse everypony was doubled over with laughter. Even he laughed along like it was all in good fun, but I saw it in his eyes that night. He was livid. After that, he started to get cruel, especially towards the pony who reminded him the most of Snare Drum.”

“Ebby... did he beat her?”

She went silent for several seconds before she would answer. “No. I never let him lay a hoof on Citrine.”

That hung in the air between them for a long while. “You know, here in Ponyville it’s unusual for ponies to wear clothing all of the time. It just occurs to me that I’ve never seen you without it,” said Main Course. “I’m not even sure what your cutie mark is.”

“I got it a lot later than most ponies. I guess I’m just a late bloomer. It’s a shield, carved out of black wood.”

“Can I see it?” he asked. Ebby just glared across the table at him. “You dress ripped back in the market the other day.”

“Better me than her,” she said softly. “That was the deal. He didn’t hurt her, she never saw anything, and he never talked about it in front of her. I think sometimes she heard things, though. Obsidian just told her I’d done something bad and was being punished.”

“Why didn’t you run? Take your daughter and get out of there?”

She smiled at him. “You know, Snare Drum said the same thing. He promised me he would take me away from there and we could start over. He just needed a few months to get the money ready. I wasn’t sure I would hold out that long, honestly, but then I had what I thought was an amazing stroke of luck. A friend offered me two tickets on an airship cruise, and I snapped them up.”

“And when you came back, Snare Drum was gone,” finished Main Course. He leaned forward over the table. “What really happened to him?”

“All Count Obsidian would tell me was that he ‘got what he deserved,’ I had to track down the real story on my own. He’d gone out to play a show in Diamond Dog territory, way further than he’d ever gone to do a show, and they found stolen artifacts when they searched his bags at one of the sites he was playing. They accused him of being a smuggler, and sentenced him to twenty years in one of their underground labor camps. Ponies who go down there don’t come back up, Main, it’s a death sentence.” For the first time since starting her story, a tear fell from her eye and Main passed her a napkin to dab at it.

“Was he? A smuggler, I mean.”

“I’ve never been sure,” admitted Ebby. “He had friends in some less-than-savoury circles, it’s true. But either he was framed or he was only doing it to get the money for me and Citrine. Either way the Count made sure he’d go down for it, and by the time I found out it was all over. So in the end it doesn’t really make a difference.” She looked over at him and tried to crack a smile. “Sorry you asked, right? Told you it was a long story.”

“Ebby, I had no idea. If there’s anything I can do...”

“There is. Give me my daughter back. I’m taking her back to Canterlot with me, one way or another. You can even come and visit her once we’ve gotten things situated.”

Main Course shook his head. “I can’t do that. None of that changes the fact that after that you were utterly horrible to Scootaloo afterwards. What you did traumatized her just as thoroughly as the Count did. You systematically terrorized her and violated her trust over and over again for years. I’m sympathetic, but I’m not going to let you uproot her from the life she’s finally started to establish here. Not to mention the fact that she doesn’t want to see you, much less let you back into her life as her mother.”

She sneered. “You’re a damned hypocrite, do you know that?”

Main Course drew his head back at the accusation. “What are you talking about?”

“Pretending you’re some kind of savior to her, and that you care so much about giving her a stable home environment here in Ponyville. I took a little trip to Manehattan the other day. Grace says hi, by the way,” said Ebby.

“You talked to Grace?” he asked before wanting to kick himself. Of course she did. Hadn’t she just said she’d looked into him?

“She told me what your plans are. Sell this place a couple of months from now and go back to your real life. Were you going to adopt my daughter and take her with you and ‘uproot her from the life she’s finally started to establish here’? Or maybe just bundle her in with the property for the next owner to deal with, that’d be easier for you.”

“It’s... it’s not like that,” he stammered. He’d been so fixated on the day to day of setting up and running the restaurant that he realized he had no idea how Scootaloo would fit into his plan to go home to Manehattan.

“It’s exactly like that. Oh, and if you want to sell this place? I’ll buy it. I have the money. I’ll even hire a couple specialists to get your insurance claim pushed through and you can be out of Ponyville in two weeks.”

“In other words, you want me to sell you Scootaloo. The answer’s no, Ebby. It doesn’t matter how much you offer me, the answer’s still no.”

Ebby closed her eyes and dipped her head. She took several deep breaths, and when she looked up again there was a playful glint in her eyes. “I would admire that about you, if I didn’t find it so annoying right now. Are you sure there’s nothing that I can do or offer you to make you drop your objections to returning Citrine to me?”

“I’m sorry, Ebby, there really isn’t,” he replied. Folding his forelegs over his chest, he stared her down until she sighed.

“Alright then, but I want you to remember that I did everything in my power to compromise with you.” She rose from her seat. “Oh, and you can let your friends and your sister know that I won't be pressing any sort of charges. I don’t want you in jail. You’re good ponies who are trying to do what you think is right for my daughter, and I respect that.” She walked away, but stopped at the front door. The sides of her robes shook, like her legs were trembling underneath them. “Main?” she asked without looking back, “if we’d met under different circumstances, do you think we could have had something together?”

“I think so. In fact I’m hoping maybe we still can. Maybe things will work out in a way that leaves us all friends, right?”

Ebby was silent for a long time. “I saw that you’re closed for lunch tomorrow,” she said when she spoke again. “Would you mind if I stopped in anyway? Say about 1:30? I never did get a chance to try that vegetable stew everypony says is so good.”

Main Course smiled. “Sure. As long as Scootaloo isn’t around, you’re welcome here.”

At that she flinched for some reason. “Goodnight, Main. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

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

Main Course found that he couldn’t stop staring at the clock.

It was a slow morning, with neither food to prepare nor Scootaloo to get up and off to school, so he hadn’t gotten out of bed until nearly ten. Laying there with nothing he needed to get up and do right away had been incredibly refreshing, and it had given him time to ponder some of the things that he’d talked to Ebby about the night before. What was he going to do when it came time to sell this place? His dream had always been to be a renowned chef, and it had been beaten into him that the place to do that was a big city like Manehattan or Canterlot. That’s where all the new ideas were. That’s where all the critics who could get you noticed were. Sure, the customers were snooty jerks a lot of the time, but that wasn’t so bad when you got used to it.

So why didn’t he miss it?

Oh, intellectually he knew that he should want to go back. And he did really want to see Grace again. But what was he likely to accomplish if he did? Well, he’d make a lot more money. Which would immediately get eaten up by rent, food prices, drinks at a bar, everything that was an order of magnitude more costly there than it was here. More ponies would know and respect him. But every pony in town knew exactly who he was. Some of them stopped him on the side of the road just to ask him for cooking tips and advice already. It was flattering and personal in a way that a good review in a prestigious magazine really wasn’t. And any way he sliced it, he certainly wouldn’t have an assistant manager like Pinkie Pie back there.

Pressure in his bladder cut off his introspection before he reached any kind of final conclusions. He sighed and got out of his bed, slipping on the fuzzy pink slippers his sister had gotten him a joke one year which despite their apparent oddity were actually very comfortable, and trotted into the bathroom to freshen up.

Assorted payroll documentation and other paperwork occupied the rest of his morning, until he wandered down to the kitchen, his kitchen, and started to heat up a pot of vegetable stew. He cursed under his breath when he realized that he’d forgotten to tell the Cakes not to send him any bread today, as the bags of fresh sourdough sat on his countertop in the same spot as they always did. He wasn’t actually certain how they got there every morning, but he suspected Pinkie was involved somehow.

By 1:20, two very nice places were set at one of his tables. On impulse, he lit up a vanilla-scented candle and placed it on a nearby table. As he moved around the room making sure everything was perfect, he caught himself humming without even realizing it.

At 1:25 there was a knock on the door. Main Course paused. He didn’t want to seem too eager, and he needed a moment to slow his racing heart. Then he trotted over to the door and opened it. There in a flowing green sundress, complete with a parasol, stood a smiling Ebby. “Come on in,” he said, not waiting for her request this time.

She leaned in and gave him a peck on the cheek, and blushed. “I love the first day of Spring after Winter Wrap Up, don’t you? Just walking around seeing the world renewed again. But right now I am famished.”

“Well, you came to the right place!” he proclaimed a bit too eagerly. He admonished himself to calm down and not blow this. “Please, take a seat at our table. Can I get you anything to drink?”

“Vodka martini,” she deadpanned, then she giggled. “Just kidding, water’s fine.”

He brought out two plates from the kitchen with a bread bowl full of vegetable stew on each, as well as a fresh bouquet of azaleas for the table, and poured two glasses of ice water from a jug on the nearby table. “I hope you enjoy it.”

“I’m certain I will, this smells divine.”

Both ponies made a point of not bringing up their disagreement over Scootaloo, or what they’d talked about the night before. Favorite songs, books, even foal hood stories were compared. Main Course regaled Ebby with stories of the Crusader’s exploits and she hung on every word. She in turn, had countless anecdotes about the antics the nobility got up to, and the strange, warped little mental world some of them seemed to inhabit.

“Ha ha haaaa, Ebby, stop, stop, I can’t... I can’t breathe,” gasped Main Course between spasms of laughter.

“So then, so then the Duke climbed out of the lobster tank, and he says... he says... are you ready for this? He says ‘Good thing I brought a spare monocle!’” Both of them launched into a fresh round of guffaws, and Ebby wiped a tear away from her eye. “Oh, gracious, that stew was delicious.”

“I’m really glad we did this, Ebby,” he replied. The smile on his face felt like it was never going away.

“Yes, so am I,” she said, then grew quiet for a moment. “I wanted to see what this would have been like. Just once, to remember you by. And I wanted to make you happy.”

“Ebby, you make me happy just by being yourself. You don’t have to do anything special.” He reached for her hoof, but she pulled it away.

“Please don’t. This is already hard enough. Main, I talked to Foal Protective Services the other day. I made a full confession to them of the way I acted around Citrine before she ran away. I don’t want to hide from my actions, I did what I did and I deserve the consequences,” said Ebby.

“They aren’t... they aren’t sending you to prison or anything, are they?” asked Main Course, horrified that he might be about to lose this very special mare he’d just met.

“No, I made a plea deal. An inspector will check in every few days to make sure everything is okay, and I’m required to go to counselling for the alcoholism, and there’s probation. Still, as long as they don’t see any signs that things are wrong, they’re fine with me being a mom again,” said Ebby, refusing to look at him.

“I don’t understand, that’s great news. Maybe Scootaloo will change her mind a little bit when she hears. At least it’s a start.”

“I want you to know that I never wanted to go through them at all. Their methods are a little bit... brusque. They’re designed to remove the foals from very bad situations where adults might be abusing them, after all, and in most cases a forceful approach is probably for the best. For Citrine, I don’t think it’s ideal.”

“Why, what do they do?” asked Main Course.

“Usually, they’ll find the foal when they’re in a safe, fairly public place, like their school. Once they’ve identified themselves, the teacher is obligated to comply with the court order, and the FPS agents take the foal into custody and bring them to the office where the order was issued from. Canterlot, in this case. They don’t even let the parents say goodbye to them, in case they try to intimidate or threaten them into not testifying. It’s just unpleasant all around.”

Main Course sat there in shock staring at her. “Tell me you aren’t saying what I think you are, Ebby.”

“I wish you would have compromised last night. It would have been better for everypony. But you wouldn’t. You wouldn’t even consider it. You knew how badly I wanted Citrine to come home so I can start rebuilding what I had with her. You left me with no choice.” She squeezed her eyes shut. “You deserve to hear it from me, even though I know you’ll never forgive me. I’m taking my daughter back.”

A thousand things ran through Main Course’s head as he felt the bottom fall out of his stomach. Memories flashed before his eyes: The first time he’d found her sneaking food from his bag. Watching her devour an entire pot of soup in record time. Cleaning out a splinter she’d gotten helping him remove a floorboard. The first time she’d let him give her a hug goodnight. The time he’d used measuring cups to help her with her fractions homework. The moment she introduced her best friends to him. The way she’d tried to hook him up with the pony she admired most in the world.

And just yesterday morning, the time she’d called him Daddy.

“How much time do I have? I can be at the schoolhouse in fifteen, no, twelve minutes. I can say goodbye at least. And her scooter, I have to give that back to her. You can’t do this. You can’t do this! Why should she ever trust you again? Why should I? Where is she right now? Where is she‽”

Main Course knocked over his chair as he leapt up to his hooves, screaming at Ebby who sat on the other side of the table, eyes closed and waiting for it to be over. When he finally paused she looked over at him with misty eyes.

“She’s on the train that left for Canterlot twenty minutes ago.”

 

 

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