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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10. Reluctant Invitations

RELUCTANT INVITATIONS

“I’ll dig a hole with my shovel, so the farmer can plant the carrots,” said Scootaloo, pacing back and forth in the kitchen as she read her line off the page. “No, I’ll dig a hole with my shovel, so the farmer can plant the carrots. Dad, which way do you think is better?”

Main Course, darting back and forth chopping up celery while trying to monitor the contents of three pans on the stove, spared a moment to glance over at her. “I think you need to stop pacing. I don’t mind if you rehearse in here while I’m cooking, but I need you to stay over there or I might trip over you.”

“Daaaaad,” she whined, “The play is two days! If I don’t practice I might forget my line.”

Privately, Main Course hoped never to hear about shovels, farmers, or even carrots ever again. Still, it was important to Scootaloo, so he bit back his retort. Before he could give her any feedback, Pinkie Pie trotted into the kitchen. “You know what Scootaloo? Ask Pinkie Pie.”

“Ask me what?” asked Pinkie.

“I’m trying to practice for my line in the school play, but I just can’t get it quite right,” said Scootaloo.

Pinkie let out a loud gasp. “Omigosh, I’ll be your acting coach! Please oh please oh please can I? Please?”

“You know about acting?” asked Scootaloo, raising a skeptical eyebrow.

“Yep! I’m super good at it. Ponies are always telling me ‘Pinkie, you’re acting crazy,’ or ‘Pinkie, you’re acting silly,’ and that’s when I’m not even trying. So I bet once I actually do try I’ll be even better. Let me see the script.”

Scootaloo passed it over to her while Main Course, grateful for the reprieve, turned his attention back to the oven. The Knoll was packed, and if he started to fall behind he’d end up deep in the weeds for the rest of the night.

“My line is on page fifteen,” said Scootaloo, reading over Pinkie’s shoulder as she rapidly flipped through the pages.

“Gotcha,” said Pinkie. She paused for a moment, lost in thought. “Okay, so what’s your motivation?”

“I don’t wanna screw up in front of everypony. All the moms and dads will be there,” said Scootaloo. “Um, Dad, you’re gonna come too, right?”

“Wouldn’t miss it,” Main Course replied from the chopping board. The blade of the knife moved too quickly to watch as he julienned a head of lettuce into garnish.

“No, silly filly, what’s your character’s motivation?” asked Pinkie.

“Uh... she likes carrots?” guessed Scootaloo.

“That’s not enough,” said Pinkie. “Brace yourself, Scootaloo. We’re gonna figure out the subtext.”

“What’s subtext?” asked Scootaloo. The poor filly was looking more and more lost with every word, clearly regretting asking the question in the first place.

“Rarity explained it to me once. It’s what the story’s really about even though it’s about something else. So even though the words in the script might say they’re about a vegetable garden and a troublesome bunny rabbit, the story’s really about the rise of nihilism within the proletariat. You can tell because of the bit with the watermelon,” said Pinkie. Scootaloo just stared, slack-jawed at the pages of the script. “It’s not your fault for not seeing it. I can’t believe they’d give something so advanced to your class. Try your line again.”

Scootaloo took the script back, handling it gingerly like it was some alien artifact. “Uh, I’ll dig a hole with my shovel, so the farmer can plant the carrots. How’s that?”

“Hmm... still feels like it’s missing something,” said Pinkie. “Try it with more passion.”

"I’LL DIG A HOLE WITH MY SHOVEL, SO THE FARMER CAN PLANT THE CARROTS!” shouted Scootaloo.

Lyra stuck her head through the order window. “Uh, Scootaloo? Could you keep it down a bit? We’re getting some weird questions out here from some of the diners.”

"Sorry,” said Scootaloo, but Pinkie Pie shook her head.

“The passion of the gardener cannot be contained! Shout it from the rooftops, Scootaloo.”

“Let’s, uh, can we talk more about what my motivation is supposed to be in this scene?” asked Scootaloo, wisely diverting Pinkie’s attention away from the question of volume.

“Sure we can! It’s easy once you spot the metaphor,” replied Pinkie.

“It is? So, what are the carrots meta for?”

“It’s one of the most common ones,” explained Pinkie. “Think about it. The gardener makes hole in the fertile soil, then waits for the farmer, seething with lust, to come around and stick his carrots in the holes like a—”

“Pinkie!” snapped Main Course. “Go check and see if table Space Forest 4: Rise of the Lunar Lumberjacks has paid their bill yet, and bus it for the next customer.”

“But I just checked a minute ago and they hadn’t—”

“Do it. Now,” growled Main Course through clenched teeth. Pinkie nodded and left the kitchen without another word.

“Dad, what’s ‘seething with lust’ mean?” asked Scootaloo, the picture of foalhood innocence.

“I’ll explain when you’re older. Now, have you written in your journal today for Doctor Inkblot?” he asked, quickly changing the subject.

“Do I have to? I’m gonna see him first thing tomorrow anyway,” moaned Scootaloo. She was not an especially introspective pony. For the last week, getting her to do her ‘crazy pony homework,’ as she disdainfully referred to it, had been a point of major contention between the two of them.

“Yes, you have to. You can write about how annoying you find it to write in the journal if you want to, but Doctor Inkblot told you—”

“Two pages every day about what you did and how you felt,” she recited. “Why can’t that be my line in the play? I’ve certainly heard it enough.”

“I’ll come up and check on you when things start to quiet down here, okay?” He gave her a quick peck on the forehead before returning to work.

“We can go to the park after my appointment, right? Are you just gonna wait for me?”

Main Course allowed himself a little smile. “Actually, I’ll be meeting somepony for breakfast.”

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

“Pinkie was about to tell her the carrots represented what?” asked Ebby. She coughed on the sip of orange juice Main Course had deliberately waited for her to take before letting that part of the story slip.

“You heard me. That mare’s a great employee but I have no idea what’s going on in her head most of the time. I had a talk with her afterwards, so it won’t happen again.”

Ebby giggled. “I’m imagining the look on your face as she said it. I wish I’d been there to see it.” Main Course stuck another forkful of pancakes into his mouth and smiled. “Main, you’ve got some syrup...” she gestured vaguely at her own cheek.

Main lifted up his napkin and rubbed the spot he thought she meant. “Did I get it?”

“Nope, here.” She took her own napkin and reached across the table, wiping at the corner of his mouth. He felt it stick for just a moment and come away smudged with a speck of sticky, golden liquid. “Oh, sorry. I probably should have asked before I did that. I know some ponies don’t like being touched.”

Main’s tongue poked out the side of his mouth and in a few quick motions lapped up the last of the sweet stain. “I don’t mind at all. Hey, can I ask you something about Scootaloo? Has she always been reluctant to talk about her feelings and such? I thought it would get easier as time went on, but it’s still like pulling teeth.”

Ebby grimaced. “That probably our fault. Opening up to other ponies was like a sign of weakness among the nobility, so she must have soaked that attitude up when she was little. Even now, knowing it’s stupid, my first instinct is to hide that kind of thing.” She ran a foreleg absentmindedly over the sleeve of the red dress she was wearing. “Thank you again, by the way, for meeting me and filling me in on what you and Scootaloo have been up to. It means more to me than you know.”

“Well, that was the deal, right? Besides, it’s nice to get to spend some time with you without any kind of pressure or drama hanging over our heads. I could get used to it,” said Main Course. “What have you been up to these days? Find yourself a place to live?”

“I did! In fact, let me give you the address now while I’m thinking of it.” She grabbed a paper napkin and a quill from her saddleback, scribbling down the new address and passing it over to him. “It’s nice. I doubt I’ll be entertaining there anytime soon, but it fits my needs.”

Main Course glanced up at the clock. Scootaloo’s appointment would be winding down soon. “Listen Ebby, it was really great to see you again. I need to go pick up Scootaloo from a thing, though. Want to do this again next week?”

“I’d like that. It’s a date,” she replied. “Actually, this is good timing. I need to get going too or I’m going to be late for an appointment of my own.” She tossed some cash onto the table and they both walked out the front door of the diner.

“Bye Ebby, I’ll see you later then,” said Main Course, offering his hoof.

“I look forward to it. Take care, Main,” said Ebby. She bumped his hoof and they nodded at each other.

Then they both began walking in the same direction down the street.

Main Course laughed. “I hate it when that happens,” he said as she sidestepped another unicorn struggling with a half-dozen overloaded shopping bags from the nearby stores.

“I know, right?” said Ebby. She playfully flicked her tail against his side. “You never know if you’re supposed to start talking again, or just lapse into that really awkward silence. I’m glad you said something first or we’d have to do the whole ‘do we say goodbye again or does the last one still count’ thing when I turn left up here.”

Main Course let out a snort. “That would have been even funnier, since I’m making the same turn.”

“I thought the Knoll was straight ahead from here, though.”

“I’m picking up Scootaloo from somewhere else, then we’re going to the park. Why, where are you going?” asked Main as they both turned down the side street.

Ebby fidgeted a bit. “When Agent Palomino mentioned that Scootaloo should go to counselling, I thought it might be good if I found somepony to talk to myself.”

“Let me guess, you ended up going to Briggs Inkblot,” said Main Course as the doctor’s office came into view. “Why would you intentionally pick the same one he recommended?”

“I didn’t know that’s who he’d recommended, all I knew was he’d given you a card with a name. It’s not like there are that many psychologists in a town this size,” said Ebby. Realization dawned on her face. “Wait, is that what you’re picking Scootaloo up from right now?”

The pair stopped in front of the office building, and Main Course sighed. The two of them stood there watching one another in the road as the ponies of the town went about their business. A passing cart kicked up some dust as it went by, but neither Ebby nor Main especially noticed it settling into their coats. “It would be fine if you were just in the waiting room when she came out, right? I could explain that it was just a scheduling accident. It might even help her to—”

Ebby didn’t wait for him to finish before she turned and walked away. “I promised her, Main,” she said over her shoulder. “I’m going to take a long walk around the block. Let Briggs know I’ll be there in a few minutes.” She stopped in her tracks. “Wish Scootaloo luck in her play for me. I’m sure she’ll be great.” Then she turned the corner and was gone.

Main Course walked into the waiting room of Briggs’ office and found him and Scootaloo waiting for him there. “Hi Dad. How was your breakfast with Ebby?” she asked.

“It was fine. Did you two have a good talk?” asked Main Course.

Scootaloo thought for a moment, but then nodded. “Yeah, we talked about a lot of different stuff about Ebby and my play. My head kinda hurts.”

“Well, I think a few hours hanging out in the park sounds like a perfect cure. I even borrowed us a frisbee.” He turned to Briggs and grew serious. “So did you mean to schedule your next appointment when you did? Or was that just bad luck?”

“My next...” Briggs furrowed his brow and walked over to the receptionist’s desk. He looked down at the calendar and his eyes went wide. “Oh. No, that was inadvertent. She rescheduled a few days ago from her usual time and I didn’t notice the connection. I apologize, it won’t happen again.”

Scootaloo looked back and forth between the two stallions. “What are you guys talking about?”

Briggs shook his head. “Scootaloo, I can’t give out information about my patients. They talk to me about things they might want to be private. It would be unethical of me to even tell you a name.”

Main Course rolled his eyes. “It’s Ebby, Scoots. We walked over from breakfast together.”

“What? She’s here?” asked Scootaloo. She started to look around the room as if her mother might suddenly pop out from a corner she’d hidden herself in.

“No, Scoots, she isn’t. When I told her I was here to pick you up she left to give you a chance to leave before she comes in,” said Main Course. He thanked his lucky stars Ebby hadn’t taken him up on the offer to come in with him.

“It sounds like she’s taking that promise you told me she made to you seriously, Scootaloo,” said Briggs. “Remember what we talked about? Why don’t you try that now, since you seem a little bit agitated by the idea that she might be nearby.”

Scootaloo nodded. “Okay, I guess so.” She trotted past Main Course, ignoring his curious look, and hopped up onto the waiting room couch. Closing her eyes she lay her head back onto a throw pillow and began muttering to herself. “I’m anxious right now. I’m not going to feel like this forever, but right now I do. My mother is here in Ponyville, but that doesn’t mean Ponyville isn’t a safe place for me. There are lots of ponies who will protect me if she tries to take me away again, and she’s promised that she won’t. I don’t know that she’s breaking that promise, even though before I ran away she’d sometimes manage to keep her promises a little while and then she’d break them anyway.”

“Easy, Scootaloo. Remember, look ahead rather than behind, and look at the reasons you don’t have to worry,” interjected Briggs.

Scootaloo opened one eye and looked over at them. “Right, sorry, it’s just too easy to remember the other stuff.”

“I know. That’s why we’re practicing. Keep going.”

She settled back onto the couch. “Even if she tried to take me back, the Guard would protect me. Rarity and Applejack and Rainbow Dash would protect me. Dad would protect me. So now I can stop being worried just because my mother is somewhere outside.” She exhaled a deep breath.

“Feel better?” asked Briggs.

“Kinda. Mostly I just feel silly talking to myself like that in front of everypony.”

Main Course smiled. “If it helps you feel better, I don’t think it’s silly at all. Ready to go?” While Scootaloo did seem a bit more relaxed, Main was eager to get her out of there before Ebby got back.

“Keep writing in the diary,” said Briggs, earning a groan from Scootaloo, “and Main, I’ll see you in a couple of days for our appointment.”

Main Course and Scootaloo bid Briggs a quick farewell and left for the park. The early morning fog had lifted, and the last lingering droplets of dew on the grass had evaporated away. “I wish that Doctor Inkblot could just fix me for good so I don’t have to do that anxiety exercise. What if Diamond Tiara or Silver Spoon catch me talking to myself like that? They’ll make fun of me,” said Scootaloo as they reached the open fields of Ponyville Park.

“You aren’t something broken that needs to be fixed, Scootaloo. And it’s a good trick to know how to do. Those two would say mean things no matter what, so forget them. Come on, race you to that tree over there. Onetwothree GO!” Main Course took off at a leisurely canter.

“No fair, I wasn’t ready!” cried out Scootaloo, her bullying concerns temporarily forgotten. She charged after him, and he let her gain just enough that their hooves touched the tree at the same time. “Ha! I won, even though you cheated.”

“I don’t know, it looked pretty close to me,” said Main Course. He tossed his head back and let the sunlight shine down on his face for a moment. He’d been cooped up in the kitchen too much lately. Stretching his legs felt good, too. Spending ten hours a day in a little room surrounded by delicious food and marinating in the stress of running a kitchen was the ideal recipe for a chubby chef; Main Course had long fought to avoid becoming one of them. Romping around the park with Scootaloo would do both of them a world of good.

Main Course took the frisbee out of his saddlebags and tossed it around with her for a while. It turned out that Scootaloo hadn’t ever learned how to throw one, so he gave her an impromptu lesson, guiding her hoof under the edge of the disc and showing her how to flick it so the spin made it curve as it flew. They practiced tossing it back and forth, and Main Course grinned when one of his tosses went high, but with a buzz of her wings Scootaloo leapt high into the air and caught it anyway before drifting slowly back down. She was gasping for breath when she landed, but happy. “Did you see that, Dad? I almost hovered!”

“That was great, Scootaloo. I bet it’ll be any day now you’ll be flying all over the place. I’ll finally have somepony to help reach the stuff I put on high shelves. And of course, I’m going to need to put you on a leash or something to keep you from just flying off.”

“Daddy! You can’t put me on a leash,” whined Scootaloo.

“Don’t worry, I’ll make sure it’s a nice leash. I’ll even let you pick out the color.” He ducked at the last second as the frisbee flew right through the space where his head had been a moment before and over to a nearby hillside. “Almost hit me there.”

“My aim’s getting better,” said Scootaloo, “next time I won’t miss.”

“That’s my girl,” said Main Course with a grin. “Come on, let’s go get it. Why don’t we get some ice cream, too?”

The two ponies settled onto the hillside with a pair of ice cream cones purchased from Double Scoop’s cart, looking up at the clouds drifting across the sky. They ate in silence for a minute before Main turned to Scootaloo. “What are you thinking about?” he asked. Scootaloo didn’t answer; she was staring off at something up in the distance. He followed her gaze, and noticed a tiny, faraway shape moving against the wind. It turned, and from the shape of it in profile he realized that it was an airship, ferrying something or somepony along the horizon.

“Doctor Inkblot and I talked about some of the stuff I remember about Mom from the better times,” said Scootaloo. “I had forgotten some of it, until I started talking about it.”

“Speaking of Ebby, this morning she told me to wish you good luck in your play.”

Scootaloo turned back to Main Course and frowned. “She’s not going to come to it, right?”

“Not unless you want her there,” said Main Course.

“I don’t.” Silence descended over the hillside again and Main Course wrapped a foreleg around her. She leaned in to rest her head against his side. “Dad? Remember back that night at the cliff?”

“I think it’s going to be a long time before I forget it, Scoots. What about it?”

“...I’m glad you caught her,” said Scootaloo.

“Me too,” said Main Course, rubbing her shoulder with his hoof.

Scootaloo rested there for a moment before she spoke again. "How do you tell if a pony is good or bad, Dad?" she asked. "I think I'm good, but that night I did something really bad. And I think my mom might be bad, but she did a lot of good stuff, too. It's all really confusing."

"That's a good question," said Main Course, stalling while he searched for a fitting response. “I don’t think anypony is always good or always bad. Put even the sweetest, most wonderful filly in the world in a rough situation like that, and they’ll do awful things. But look at it this way; you’re genuinely sorry for what you did. I think that anypony, if they’re really, truly sorry for what they did and do everything they can to make it better for the ponies they hurt then maybe they weren’t truly bad ponies at heart.” He trailed off. “You don’t have to forgive her, Scootaloo, but I think you would feel better if you did, even just a little bit.”

“Maybe,” said Scootaloo, flopping back down on the grass and looking away.

Main Course ran a hoof through her mane. “Look, you’ve been thinking about this all morning already. The answers will come with time, okay? This is new for all three of us, and there’s lots of stuff we’ll figure out along the way.” He finished up the last of his ice cream and crumpled up the napkin he’d been holding the cone in. “Come on, let’s go for a little hike and then head home so I can make us some lunch.

They walked away from the hill, and in the distance the airship slowly shrank away until it couldn’t be seen any longer.

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

Sitting at his desk, Main Course reread the letter he’d received that afternoon for the third time.

Main Course,

Scootaloo sounds like a sweetheart, I can’t wait to meet her. I have some new updates on the whole insurance rigmarole, but it’s too much to go into now. The good news is that midterm break is coming up this weekend, so my class is out for a few days. I’ll be on the train to Ponyville to come and see what you've managed to pull together out there, and maybe start figuring out an asking price for when you sell it.

It’ll be a fun weekend. We’ll have a lot to talk about.

Yours Truly,

Grace

Main Course tapped the tip of his quill against the surface of the desk, a tic that had completely mutilated his last three work desks over the years. This was not a conversation he’d been looking forward to. He’d just finally started to feel settled here, and the reminder that he’d promised to pick up stakes and move back to the big, impersonal city had already been eating at him since he’d signed the paperwork for Scootaloo. If he tried to uproot Scootaloo, would he be any better than Ebby was? But Grace was counting on him, too. There had to some kind of compromise. There always was.

He groaned and planted his face down on the desk. The last few weeks had been so draining with everything that had happened. He didn’t regret taking on any of it, but the stress was building up. Tomorrow another week of work would start, and next weekend he’d probably spend his day off dealing with Grace.

“Dad, are you alright?” asked Scootaloo from the door to his office. He looked up and saw her standing there carrying her fully loaded saddlebags across her back.

“Yeah, I’m fine. Just have a bit of a headache from all this homework,” said Main Course. “Are you ready to go to Rarity’s for your sleepover?”

Scootaloo was usually eager to sleep over at either of her best friends’ houses, but this time she seemed a bit more subdued. “Rarity’s gonna make us try on costumes all night, isn’t she?”

Main laughed. “She might, but I’m sure you’ll all manage to have fun anyway. Besides, you three will be the best-looking fillies onstage tomorrow night.”

“Um... about that,” said Scootaloo. “I was thinking about what we talked about in the park, and what Doctor Inkblot said, and I think that if my mom wanted to come to the play tomorrow I’d be okay with it.”

Main Course blinked a few times. “Really? You would?”

“I don’t want her to talk to me, or Miss Cheerilee, or meet any of my friends though. She can come for just the play and she has to promise to leave right afterwards. I mean, it’ll be bright up on stage and Miss Cheerilee says we’ll barely even be able to see anypony out in the audience. So I think I could handle it if she were there watching.” She looked away. “Sorry I decided this so late. It’s probably too late to tell her anyway.”

If Scootaloo wanted to extend an olive branch, even a tiny one, Main Course wouldn’t let a silly little matter of logistics get in the way. “I’ll ask her if she wants to come after I bring you over tonight. Are you sure?”

Scootaloo shook her head. “No. But ask her anyway.”

When Main Course dropped Scootaloo off at Rarity’s boutique for the night, the mare whisked her straight inside for final touchups and fittings on the costumes she’d made for each of the Crusaders. Apparently, she took school plays quite seriously and always had. Main Course gave Scootaloo a kiss goodnight and promised that he’d see her after the play tomorrow night. His spirits were high as he left and headed for the address Ebby had given him. Sure, Scootaloo had only offered the barest minimum concession, but that was beside the point. She had offered. The idea of Ebby just being in the same room as she was didn’t send her into panicky fits anymore.

The address led him to a small brick-walled complex of six or seven individual apartments near the far edge of town. Main Course found Ebby’s unit and knocked on the front door. He waited for about a minute, then knocked again. No answer. The smile he’d been sporting since leaving the boutique began to slip and his headache reasserted itself. Well, maybe she was already asleep or just not home. Main Course pulled a piece of paper out and scribbled down a quick note. He slid it under the door and had just turned to leave when it opened a smidgen.

“Main Course?” asked Ebby. She stuck her head outside, her damp mane wrapped in a white towel. “Did you knock? I’m sorry, I just got out of the shower. Is everything alright?”

“Yeah, everything’s fine. Actually, could I come in for a minute?” he asked.

“Oh, sure. One second.” She closed the door again, and when she opened it again a moment later it was from further inside with her magic. Main Course walked in and surveyed the bare little studio apartment. It was sparsely furnished, the undecorated gray walls making it feel gloomy even though several lights were on. A ceiling fan turned lazily above Ebby, standing on the bare wooden floors. Her wet black mane clung to the side of her neck and head, and she’d unfurled the towel and was holding it between the two of them in her magic, covering her body up like a curtain.

Main Course, unsure of how or even if he was supposed to acknowledge the towel, looked around the room. There was an open book pages-down on her bed, a paperback copy of Eat Bray Love that looked like it had been flipped through more than once, and a lone picture on her nightstand depicting her holding a much younger Scootaloo on the deck of an airship with a magnificent vista in the background. Beyond that, there wasn’t any sign of a personal touch. “Nice place. It’s... uh...”

“Depressing?” finished Ebby. “I haven’t really had a chance to liven it up yet. Once I’ve brought in a few more things it’ll start to feel like somepony actually lives here.” As Main Course walked into the room she moved away from him, constantly shifting the towel in the air to obscure herself.

“Well, do you have any plans for tomorrow evening? Scootaloo wanted to know if you’d come to watch her school play.”

Ebby froze. The towel wavered and nearly dropped before she recovered. “She... wants me at her play?”

“Well, not unconditionally,” said Main Course, “she said she’d, well, rather not see you or talk to you before or after it. Still, if you want to be in the audience during the performance itself...” he trailed off. “I’m sorry, that towel is really throwing me off.”

“Oh,” she said, and looked away. “I didn’t want to make you wait until I got dressed. It’s for the best, though.”

“Is it really that bad, Ebby?” he asked as gently as he could. “I’m sure that whatever’s under there, I can take it.”

She gave him a bitter little smile. “That’s what everypony says. I tried dating a few ponies after I got divorced, you know. I know how to put on the most charming facade, and Obsidian was always careful not to leave any marks where they couldn’t be covered up.” She dropped her eyes. “Then ponies see the ugliness underneath the disguise, and suddenly I’m alone again.”

“Sounds exhausting, being alone all the time like that,” said Main Course. He chanced a small step in her direction.

“I see what you’re trying to do, Main, and it’s sweet of you. But I’m toxic. There have been two ponies who I loved more than anything else in the world. I got one of them shoved so far down a dark hole that he’ll never see daylight again, and drove the other one to despair until she ran away. Don’t set yourself up to be number three. I’m not worth it.”

“I don’t think that’s true, Ebby. And I don’t believe that you could possibly be ugly. So I’m calling in one of those favors you owe me and asking that you trust me.”

She sniffled. “Of course I trust you." The room was quiet for a long minute while she made up her mind. "Just... close your eyes for a second, okay?”

He shrugged and closed then. Something soft and fluffy hit him in the face. He pulled the towel away and for the first time got a good look at what Ebby had been keeping hidden for so long. His breath caught in his throat as he took in her uncovered chest and flank. Old scars ran along her side and criss-crossed at a hundred different angles over her back. A patch of her vibrant orange coat behind her right shoulder was corrupted into a splotchy grey-brown, and looked rough and scraggly in comparison to it’s otherwise well-groomed sheen. He finally got a good look at her cutie mark. Sure enough, it was a shield carved out of black wood with a few token stems and leaves growing from the sides. It stood out as the largest patch of unmarred skin between the base of her neck and her knees. “Ebby...”

“I know,” she said, squeezing her eyes closed rather than looking up at him. She probably didn’t need to see his face to guess at the look of horror he was giving her. “I’m pretty disgusting.”

“It’s not that ba...” the lie was just too big to get out, so he tried something more truthful. “I don’t think you’re disgusting. Damaged, maybe, but not disgusting and certainly not ugly.” He reached out to her with a foreleg, pausing when he thought better of it. “Sorry. Can I touch you?”

She smiled without opening her eyes. “It’s been a long time since a stallion wanted to. Sure.” When he hesitated, she took a few steps closer on her own and brought her side against his suspended hoof. As he brushed over the lines, each one tracing out the story of another night she put herself between the Count and Scootaloo, she whimpered.

“I’m not hurting you, am I?” asked Main as he allowed himself to put a little more pressure on her back. He should really stop staring at her, but he found he just couldn’t look away.

“Compared to how I got them, it barely even tickles.” She half-opened her eyes and looked up at him, and his mind suddenly registered that the tips of their muzzles were less than an inch apart. Her nostrils flared, and she burst into a giggling fit. “Sorry, I just noticed that you absolutely reek of garlic.”

“Kind of a professional hazard. I hope you don’t mind too much.”

“It’s nice,” she replied as she nuzzled his neck, letting his silvery mane fall over her face. He could feel the hot little puffs of her breath against his skin as she breathed the scent in. A bit of the tension he’d been carrying in his neck relaxed under the heat. “I... I think the smart thing to do would be to ask you to leave. Because if I don’t, I think I’m going to last about five more minutes before I ask you to stay.”

“That would probably be the smart thing, yes. Otherwise things might get a lot more complicated,” agreed Main Course. Despite that, neither of them found the willpower to pull away. Instead, he let Ebby wrap a hoof over his back and raise her head until their faces were cheek-to-cheek.

Main Course planted a light kiss on her, and was rewarded with a little sigh. “That’s not fair. You need to stop all of this, Main. Stop making me smile when I think about you. Stop making me feel safe when you’re holding me. Stop giving me all this hope that things are going to work out.” She pressed the tip of her muzzle to his, their lips so close together that he could feel hers even though they weren’t quite touching. “Stop making me fall in love with you.” Before he could respond, she pushed forward and kissed him back.

It was just as well. His answer would have been ‘no.’

Their first kiss, on that treacherous afternoon back in Rarity’s boutique, and been gentle and accommodating. This one, on the other hoof, was taking no prisoners. Locked in a passionate embrace, the couple stumbled and dragged one another across the room until Main Course pinned Ebby down on the bed. He traced his hooves all along her sides, exploring each ancient ridge and bump from her old wounds, while she wriggled around trying to press herself against him more tightly. Ebby’s moans were cut off by another hungry, seeking kiss.

It was well over an hour later when they both passed out tangled up in the other’s legs, spent but glowing with satisfaction. The Knoll could open a little bit later than usual the next day.

 

 

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