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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8. Somepony Save Me

SOMEPONY SAVE ME

Main Course tore through the streets of Ponyville at a full gallop towards the train station. An errant thought registered that he’d forgotten to shut the front door after he shoved it open on the way out of the restaurant. Ebby could shut it when she left, hopefully never to come back. She’d sat there at his table, eating his food and telling jokes while Scootaloo was being ripped away from the life she knew. She probably screamed out for you to come help her, his mind helpfully volunteered.

He galloped faster.

As he skidded to a stop on the platform of the train station, he cast his gaze about desperately for any sign that the train might have been delayed or broken down. But the tracks were empty, and there was no sign of Scootaloo. The only other pony was a green unicorn in a necktie, who looked like he had been waiting there for some time.

“You must be Main Course,” he said. “I’m Agent Palomino, with Foal Protective Servi—”

Main Course dashed over to him and lifted him off the ground by the scruff of his neck before he could finish. “Bring her back,” he growled. “Bring her back right now.”

“I understand that you’re upset,” said Palomino in a calm voice, “but I’m going to need to ask you to put me down.”

“You’re bucking right I’m upset! Where did you take her?”

“Mister Course, I do this for a living. I frequently deal with ponies who are just as upset with my actions as you are right now. Oftentimes they are larger and stronger than you are, or armed. I am trained in five different forms of martial arts, and the only reason I haven’t yet dropped you to the ground with several broken ribs is that Lady Ebony’s testimony suggested that you’ve been a positive influence on the filly in question. That courtesy will expire in five seconds. I suggest you put me down before it does.”

Main Course looked into Palomino’s eyes and saw no sign that he was bluffing. He lowered him gently to the ground and Palomino brushed some dust off his shoulder. “Now, where is Scootaloo?”

“On her way to a transitional foster care facility in Canterlot,” said Palomino. “She’ll be assessed, questioned, and given a safe place to stay before we assign her a new guardian.”

“You mean before you give her to Ebby,” said Main Course.

“Hmm? Oh, yes, Lady Ebony. She is a strong contender, certainly. We haven’t been able to contact the filly’s father as of yet, but he would also be a possibility.”

Main Course scoffed. “Good luck with that. He’s in a Diamond Dog work prison.”

Palomino raised an eyebrow. “I find it rather difficult to believe that Count Obsidian was put into a work camp without it making the papers.” Main Course sealed his mouth shut, realizing he’d said too much. “Oh, you meant her biological father. Relax, infidelity lost its power to surprise me three weeks after I started this job. In point of fact, the filly’s paternity is unimportant. His wife at the time birthed the foal, and he acted as her father throughout the years leading up to her disappearance. In the eyes of the law, her genetic makeup is irrelevant at this point. If he wishes to raise her, he certainly has a claim that will be evaluated as if he were her biological father.”

“Well, what about me?” asked Main Course. “She wants to be here with me. Shouldn’t that count for something? Because you damn well better believe I’m throwing my hat into the ring with the others.”

Palomino tapped his chin, considering this. “It does count for something, yes. We try to take the foal’s preference into consideration. But try to consider that in light of the rest of your circumstances. You own and operate your own restaurant, correct? How much work is involved with that, weekly?”

“I don’t know, maybe seventy, eighty hours a week? It’s certainly a full time position.”

“Quite. And you wouldn’t characterize yourself as being in a long term relationship, would you? It’s just you?”

“Well, yes, I suppose it is but—”

“So who, exactly, is taking the time to raise this foal while you’re so busy?”

Main Course bristled at the implication. “I’ve made time for her.”

“Perhaps, yes, in fits and starts. But what happens when you start being responsible for things like parent-teacher conferences? Dentist appointments? What happens when some emergency crops up in the middle of the day? Can you leave your station on a few minutes notice? Do you have any special training or talent for dealing with a traumatized foal's particular needs?” The ensuing silence spoke volumes. “No, I didn’t think so. Perhaps you need to stop thinking in terms of what you want, and start thinking in terms of what's best for her.”

“What's best for her is having a parent who doesn’t scare her half to death with their presence,” said Main Course.

"We fully intend to work with her and Lady Ebony to ensure that's the case," said Palomino, "but that doesn't necessarily mean it's going to be you."

"But... but... she calls me Daddy," he finished lamely, backing away. The reality that he may never see Scootaloo again was beginning to penetrate his initial denial.

"I'm sure our psychologists will find that detail encouraging. It implies that she'll be able to form an emotional bond with whoever she's assigned to." Palomino looked over to him, and his gaze softened. "I'm sorry. We don't like separating families, but sometimes we have to for the good of the foal. You may not believe me, but I really do want whatever's best for Scootaloo."

"This isn't over, you know. I won't give up that easily."

"Good," said Palomino, "You wouldn't be much of a candidate if you did." Another train pulled into the station, and ponies started to disembark. "My advice is that rather than just chasing after her without a plan, you step back and make yourself ready to be somepony who can actually be a decent father figure to her. That's the only chance you have. Now if you'll excuse me, I need to return to the office."

Main Course said nothing as the stallion boarded the train bound for Canterlot. He considered jumping onto it as well, but the agent's words held him back. A few minutes after it arrived, the train pulled away again. Main Course watched it recede further and further into the distance. Soon it was nothing more than a little dot on the horizon sending up a trail of smoke, and then even that was gone.

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

The next few day weren’t a lot of fun. Silver Scroll more or less confirmed what Palomino had told him, and wasn’t very optimistic about their prospects for recovering Scootaloo. It devolved into a shouting match that her neighbors would probably be talking about for weeks. Later, when his temper had cooled a bit, he grudgingly admitted to himself that he owed his sister a major apology. After all, she’d been nothing but helpful since he got here. It was his own fault for underestimating Ebby’s desperation to get Scootaloo back.

When he eventually got around to bringing the news to the Carousel Boutique late that afternoon, he discovered that Sweetie Belle had already made a full report to Rarity. She was more than happy to retell the story, though.

“We’d all just come back inside after recess,” said Sweetie Belle. “Miss Cheerilee said we could do free drawing for a little bit because she needed to talk to Scootaloo out in the hallway. Scoots got real nervous because she thought she was in trouble for what we’d done to the swingset with all the glue.”

“Wait,” interrupted Rarity, “you didn’t mention anything about glue or a swingset when you were telling me this the first time.”

“Uh...” said Sweetie, suddenly much more fidgety than she’d been a moment ago, “that’s because it wasn’t relevant to the rest of the story! Yeah, that! Anyway, Cheerilee didn’t look angry, but she did look like she was really upset about something. Scootaloo followed her out into the hall and I was just asking Featherweight if he knew anything about what was happening when we heard her scream. Then she ran past the door and a grown up stallion in a suit was chasing her, and I guess they caught her because only Miss Cheerilee came back in. She told us it wasn’t anything we needed to worry about, but that Scootaloo wouldn’t be in class for at least the next couple days. She was really distracted for the rest of the afternoon, though, and she ended up letting us go home a bit early.”

Main Course sighed, and was about to reply when a loud crash came from the upstairs bedroom, followed by a stream of creative but muffled cursing. Rarity clamped her hooves over Sweetie Belle’s ears before it got especially bad, and a moment later Rainbow Dash appeared at the top of the stairs with a strand of purple ribbon stuck behind her ear. She fixated on Main Course and blitzed him from the top of the stairs, knocking him to the floor. “Where is she? How could you be so stupid? Why didn’t you come find me first? When did the train leave, maybe I can still catch it. Where’s that two-timing, double-crossing mare? I’ll kill her.”

“Rainbow, calm yourself,” said Rarity. “It’s safe to say that Scootaloo is not in any kind of immediate danger. We can work this out if you’ll be patient and—”

“No!” Rainbow Dash spun around and shouted in Rarity’s face. “We tried the patience thing. That’s why she’s gone now!” She fell to her knees and started to sniffle. “I... maybe if we’d let her stay home from school, kept her hidden, none of this would have happened.” She wiped at her eyes and glared at Main Course, still laying stunned on his back from the impact. “You better get her back, you understand? Otherwise I’m not gonna be held responsible when I go and do something really, really, stupid.”

“Uh huh,” said Main Course as the world around him slowly came back into focus, dominated by Rainbow Dash’s upside-down face staring daggers at him. He shook his head to clear away the last of the fogginess. “She’s okay, they’re taking her to the main foster home in Canterlot. I’m sure we’ll think of something, I just... I don’t know what yet.”

The three adults continued to argue. Meanwhile, Sweetie Belle, who’d been momentarily forgotten, slipped out of the boutique.

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

“How are you feeling this evening, Scootaloo?”

Scootaloo sat on the other side of the table from the pink unicorn, Doctor What’s-her-face, who was holding a thick file bearing the name Citrine. Everypony she’d talked to over the last few days was Doctor something or another, and Scootaloo was sick of answering their questions. Rather than making eye contact, Scootaloo looked away towards the large mirror set into one of the room’s powder-blue walls. She glanced back just long enough to stick her tongue out at the newest offender and crossed her forelegs over her chest.

The unicorn chuckled. “I suppose that’s understandable. The last couple of days must have been pretty disruptive and confusing for you. But please understand that we’re only pestering you because we wanted to make sure you were healthy, and the good news is that you are. A little thinner than we’d like, and your wings are a touch on the underdeveloped side, but nothing too serious or irreversible.”

“Fine,” said Scootaloo, “can I go home now?”

“Of course, just as soon as we figure out where ‘home’ is going to be,” said Doctor What’s-her-face.

“Ponyville,” Scootaloo immediately replied, “home is in Ponyville.”

“We’ll see. Now, I know that this next exercise is going to make you a little uncomfortable, but your mother is here.” Scootaloo stiffened and cringed. “We’d like you to try to open up a bit of a dialogue with her. We understand how intimidating she must be for you, but you won’t ever get past that if you don’t at least try to talk to her. We’ll start off with just a five-minute chat, and we won’t leave you alone with her. I’ll be right here the entire time. Nothing scary is going to happen just from talking.”

“Sounds like I don’t have much of a choice,” said Scootaloo.

“I suppose not. But what you can choose is how you’ll react to her presence. Think about that,” she said. Scootaloo didn’t get a chance to reply before the doctor walked over to the door and opened it. “Lady Ebony? We’re ready for you.”

Scootaloo was anything but ready when a moment later Ebby’s bashful, smiling face appeared in the doorway. “Hello, Citrine,” she said. She hesitated a moment before she stepped into the room and sat down across the table from her, while the doctor took a seat in the corner and pulled out a quill and notepad.

“...Hi,” Scootaloo eventually replied.

“I just want to start by saying that I’m sorry for everything I did to you, back then and now bringing you back here to Canterlot. I made a lot of mistakes,” said Ebby.

“No, you didn’t,” said Scootaloo. “A mistake is something you do because you don’t know any better, or you don’t understand a situation. That’s what Main Course and Rainbow Dash both told me, and they’re each ten times the pony you are. When you keep doing the same bad thing over and over again, you don’t get to keep calling it a mistake.”

Ebby gulped. “Things I regret, then. But the one thing I have never, ever regretted was having you for a daughter. I know sometimes when I was drunk I’d say things that probably made you feel like I did, but I didn’t. I know you’ve heard this before, but I’m not drinking anymore. I haven’t for over a year now.”

Scootaloo’s ears perked up a bit at that. “A year? Really?”

“Really,” said Ebby with a smile.

Scootaloo redoubled her pout. “Well, it’s too late. I have friends and a life in Ponyville. I go to school there. I have everything I need. Why would I want to come back here?”

“We can take trips to visit Ponyville together whenever you want. Besides, what about your friends here in Canterlot? You might not have seen them for a few years, but I’ll bet you’ll reconnect with them once you’re living here again. And wait until you see our new apartment. It’s not as big as our old house was, but it’s cozy. It’ll feel like home before you know it. We’ll pick up where we left off, and... well, I know you won’t ever forget how I treated you, then, but I’ll do whatever it takes to make you happy.”

“Really?” asked Scootaloo, raising a skeptical eyebrow. “Whatever it takes?”

“Yes!” cried Ebby, leaning over the table reaching out a hoof towards Scootaloo. She made no move to take it.

“Then let me go back to Ponyville and never try to come see me again. Just go away, and this time stay away. I’d rather go back to living in the woods around town than move in with you again.”

Ebby slumped down over the surface of the table as Scootaloo’s words sunk in. “Please, sweetie, I want to be part of your life again. Just give me a chance to be a better mother to you.”

Scootaloo pushed her chair back from the table and stood up. “I don’t have a mother,” she said. She looked over to the doctor in the corner of the room, who was furiously scribbling down notes. “That felt like it was about five minutes. Can I go back to my room now?”

Doctor What’s-her-face looked up, and saw the devastation writ across Ebby’s face as well as the determined way Scootaloo was staring down at the floor. “...Sure. We’ll try this again tomorrow, maybe for ten minutes this time.” She opened the door and led Scootaloo out down the hallway. Just as it slammed shut behind her, she heard Ebby begin to sob.

An hour later, Scootaloo lay on her bed in the little room that had been temporarily assigned to her. She stared up at the ceiling in the fading evening light. She was trying her hardest to be strong and brave, but she hated it here. The other foals were weird, and the ones who were close to her age didn’t seem eager to talk to her or sit with her at meals. Everypony there seemed to be just waiting for something, or resigned to the idea that it would never happen. It wasn’t a place she wanted to stay.

That was when she heard the tapping on her window.

Curious, she sat up and trotted over to it. She opened it up as far as she could and looked out through the wrought iron bars welded over the potential escape route. “Hello? Is somepony there?”

“Ah told you this was the right window,” said Applebloom’s voice from the bushes below.

“Twelfth time’s the charm, I guess,” said Sweetie Belle’s.

“Girls! Is that you? What are you doing here?” asked Scootaloo.

“Gettin’ our cutie marks in hostage extraction, of course,” said Applebloom, as if it were the most obvious answer in the world.

“Yeah, you didn’t think we were gonna let your mom keep you here, did you? All the stupid grown ups were arguing about what they should do, so we decided it was up to us to bust you out of here,” said Sweetie Belle. “The last train to Ponyville for the night leaves in an hour. We already got your ticket.”

“Great! You have no idea how glad I am to see you. Did you bring something to get through these bars?” asked Scootaloo.

Sweetie Belle and Apple Bloom grinned at one another. “Oh, we brought something alright. Mah sister may have taken the book we borrowed from Twilight last week, but she didn’t get mah notes.” She scampered off towards the park situated next to the building.

“Get your stuff together, and, uh, you might want to stay away from this wall. And hide behind something,” added Sweetie Belle before she followed after her.

Scootaloo scampered over to her dresser and grabbed the saddlebags the orphanage had given her. She loaded them up with some of the snack food she’d snuck out of the dining hall and threw on the gray rain cloak since the weather report for the next few days called for rain. She was struggling with the clasp when she felt the building shake and a thin layer of plaster dust drifted down over her from the ceiling.

“Sorry!” called out Applebloom’s voice from outside. Another minute passed with Scootaloo huddled on the floor by the foot of her bed frame, and then her wall exploded inwards. The rock that had punched a hole in the brick wall just big enough for her to squeeze through broke into pieces as she coughed on the dust it had kicked up. She pressed herself through the hole as she heard somepony knocking on the door to her room, and bolted for the slope where the other two Crusaders were waiting for her, beckoning for her to hurry.

In the confusion, they had no trouble sneaking down to the train station. Few ponies were eager to pay attention to three little fillies when, to hear them tell it, either Nightmare Moon, Discord, or King Sombra had snuck into Canterlot. The dastardly fiend/fiends had even stooped so low as to bombard an orphanage, the rumors went. One panicky unicorn noble was clinging to the breastplate of one of the guards, begging them to protect him from the dark army of changelings he swore up and down he had personally witnessed marching on the capital.

Once they were comfortably situated on the train, Scootaloo hugged both of her friends in turn. “Thanks Sweetie, Apple Bloom,” she said, “I’m so glad to be going home again.” She let out a relieved sigh as they began to pull away from the platform. “I’m not sure where I’m going to stay, though.”

“Ah thought you’d stay with one of us, or go back to the Knoll,” said Apple Bloom.

Scootaloo shook her head. “Nah, they’ll come looking for me there if I do. I have to hide somewhere they won’t think to look or everypony will get into even more trouble.” She tapped her chin and thought for a few moments. “Sweetie, you know that cave down by the river, right? Rarity told me you hid in it the night when you ran away. I could stay there for a couple of days, if you could sneak out sometimes and bring me food and basic supplies once in awhile.”

Sweetie Belle nodded vigorously. “Uh huh! I know just where you mean. I’ll bring stuff by every afternoon.”

“Perfect. It’ll only be for a week or so until the search dies down, then... I don’t know.” She looked out the window at the city they were quickly pulling away from. “Anything’s better than coming back here again.”

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

“Equestria to Main Course. Helloooooooooooooo?”

Main Course snapped out of the fugue state as he felt a hoof tap gently against the back of his head. He looked down at the zucchini slices he’d been trying to sear, only to find that they’d burned beyond recognition a long time ago. He turned and saw Pinkie Pie standing behind him, carrying a small bowl of coleslaw and wearing a worried look on her face. “Sorry, Pinkie, I zoned out there for a second. What is it?”

“Table Ambystoma Cingulatum says their food doesn’t taste good, so I said ‘No way, seriously?’ and then they were all ‘Coleslaw isn’t supposed to taste like salt, Pinkie,’ and I was like ‘Well maybe it’s a super special kind of coleslaw that’s supposed to, but I’ll go ask,’ and then I came in here and I was like ‘Hey Main? Is this supposed to taste like this?’ but you didn’t answer so I poked you in the back of the head and I was like ‘Equestria to Main Course. Hellooooooo,’ except with more ‘o’s than that and then you turned around and were like ‘Sorry, Pinkie, I zoned out there for a second. What is it?’ and I started telling you that table—”

“I get the idea. Let me see,” he said. He scooped out a small spoonful of the slaw and stuck it into his mouth, then immediately spat it out again. “Ugh! I sent that out to a customer? That’s way too salty. Sorry, Pinkie, let me get them a new portion.” He pulled out the large bowl of coleslaw he’d prepared that morning, checked that he hadn’t screwed up the whole batch with a fresh spoon, and dug out a generous helping. “Here, you can bring this out to them.”

Pinkie didn’t move to take it. “Main Course, that’s the fifth time somepony’s sent something back tonight, and usually nopony ever sends stuff back. Is this because of what happened with Scootaloo yesterday? Do you want to talk about it? Because the only kind of party I don’t like is a pity party.”

“No, not really. Now’s not the time, anyway,” said Main Course.

“Well... okay, if you say so,” she said. Main Course turned back around, but then felt Pinkie wrap her forelegs around his neck and pull him into a hug anyway. “I know this is is probably a health code violation because Twilight taught me all about those the time when I got Fluttershy’s animals to help me run the bakery, but I promise I won’t tell anypony I gave you a hug if you don’t.”

Instead of protesting, Main Course closed his eyes and leaned into the hug. “Deal. The secret’s safe with me. Thanks, Pinkie, that really does help.”

“Of course it did! Hugs always help, silly,” she said with a giggle. “Promise me you’ll feel better.”

“Pinkie, I can’t just promise that I’ll...” he trailed off as he saw the big, trembling, puppy-dog-eyed look she was giving him, and sighed. “Alright, I promise that I’ll feel better.”

“You’d better, mister! Or else I’m gonna make you feel better,” she exclaimed as she left the kitchen with the coleslaw to get back to work. Main Course looked into the dining area through the service window. The Knoll was half-empty, and the waitstaff was milling about without very much to do. Rain usually kept customers away, and the pegasi were starting spring off with several days of it. Still, at least it fit the mood he was in.

Just as he was about to turn back to his cooking, he happened to glance up at a flicker of movement from the front door. The last mare he’d ever expected to see again opened up the front door and, ignoring the hostess’ attempt to seat her, trotted over to the window where Main was standing, dumbfounded.

“You’ve got some nerve, Ebby,” he said when he got over his initial shock. “Get out of my restaurant.”

Ebby peeled back the hood of the heavy rain cloak she wore. “Is she here? I just need to know if she’s here.”

There was zero doubt in his mind about whom she was referring to. “Is this some sort of sick joke? Because I’m not laughing.”

Ebby shook her head. “Somepony broke down the wall to her room the other night, with a trebuchet of all things. It’s a miracle nopony was hurt, but she’s missing. The Guard is searching Canterlot, but I thought she might have come back here instead. She said something about...” she trailed off for a moment before finding the strength to continue, “...she said she’d rather live in the woods around here than with me. Please, I just need to know that she’s somewhere safe.”

“Did you say with a trebuchet?” asked Main Course, then shook his head. “She’s not here. Even if she were I wouldn’t tell you she was, but she really isn’t.”

“Well, I’m not leaving until I find her or I get word that she’s safe. I’m going into the woods to see if she's there. If she’s hiding out at somepony’s house that isn’t such a big deal, but if there’s even a chance she’s out there in this weather I’m not leaving her alone. Would, um, do you think you could help me look?” She winced even as she asked.

“Absolutely not. I don’t want her out there alone either, but I trust her to survive on her own more than I trust you if you do find her. You want to help? Stay out of both our lives. Besides, I have a dinner rush that’ll start in a half-hour.”

Ebby looked at him with pleading eyes. “I can’t. I can’t sit around doing nothing while she slips away from me. I don’t want to hurt her, or you. I just want a fair chance to patch things up with her, but she’s just so stubborn! She digs in and won’t give even an inch no matter what I say or do. Her father was the same way, when he set his mind to something.”

Main Course allowed himself a little smile. “You should have seen her the night I showed her how to make fillo dough. Of course she kept tearing it, nopony gets it on the first try. I told her that, but then I woke up at three in the morning and saw that the lights were on in the kitchen. When I came down to turn them off I found her hunched over the counter trying to get it right. She went through ninety pounds of flour that night before I discovered her, and I had to physically carry her up to bed while she kept insisting that she almost had it. She was asleep on my shoulder before I got to the top of the stairs."

Ebby smiled, and the animosity permeating the room faded for a moment. "That's why. That's why I need to be her mother again. I've missed too many moments like that already, I refuse to miss any more."

"I know exactly how you feel," said Main Course. "I'm still not going to help you find her."

Ebby glared at him, but then gave a curt nod. "Then I guess I'm on my own again." She turned to walk away, then stopped. "When I do find her... I'll make sure you at least get to say goodbye this time. The way I did it before wasn't fair to either of you. I'm sorry, for all the good that does." She tightened her cloak around herself and walked back out the way she came.

Main Course waited for a minute to make sure she wasn’t coming back. “Pinkie?” he asked.

“What’s up?” asked Pinkie’s voice from behind him. He didn’t even wonder when she’d gotten back into the kitchen.

“Stop seating ponies when they come in. I’m pushing out the food they’ve already ordered, then shutting down.”

“But dinner—”

“Is cancelled,” interrupted Main Course. “I’m wrapping this up, and then I need to head over to Rarity’s boutique. There’s a little filly there who knows more than she’s saying.”

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

Scootaloo yanked up a few more dandelions from the clearing, doing her best to ignore the biting cold that was seeping past her coat. Over the last few days the cloak she’d brought with her had gotten caught and snagged as she moved about in the woods. She could no longer rely on its protection against the forces of nature. It was almost dark, and she just needed to pick a few more for breakfast tomorrow and she could head back to the shelter and relative comfort of her cave. At least it was dry.

Her ears perked up as she heard a new sound, under the driving rain and winds.

“Citrine? Citrine, are you out here?”

Scootaloo began to shiver again, but this time it had nothing to do with the cold. Nowhere was safe. Even here, Ebby had somehow managed to track her down. She felt a knot of anger, panic, and hatred twist up in her chest. Even worse, the voice was coming from the direction of her cave, cutting her off from safety.

She bolted for the cover of the trees, but stumbled when she stepped into a deceptively deep puddle and fell with a loud splash. The noise brought with it unwanted attention. There was the sound of hoofbeats and cracking branches as she half-galloped-half-waded to the edge of the puddle.

“It is you! Oh, thank the Princesses,” said the voice behind her. Scootaloo slowly turned, and sure enough, there was her mother at the edge of the clearing.

“Why can’t I get rid of you?” asked Scootaloo. “Why can’t you just let me be happy?”

“I didn’t know what happened to you,” said Ebby, “when they came to my door and told me that a wall in your room had collapsed and they couldn’t find you, all I could think about was how you could be hurt, or worse. I could never live with myself if something had happened to you.”

“Well, here I am. I’m fine. Goodbye now.”

“Just try to meet me halfway on this. All I want is a chance. If you could just remember the good times, too. We could go back to that, I swear. We can be a family again, just the two of us.

“Just the two of us?” asked Scootaloo. “I knew it, you want to take me away from all the other ponies I love. I won’t let you! Leave me alone!” With no other options open to her, Scootaloo turned back towards the trees and ran as fast as her legs would carry her.

“Citrine, please! That’s not what I meant! Come back!”

She ignored her mother’s pleas, pushing through the foliage and ducking under branches. The gloomy twilight and the rain conspired together to keep her from seeing more than a few lengths in any particular direction. All she knew was that she had to flee from the sounds behind her. Without warning, the edge of the forest appeared and she was out of the trees. She only just stopped before she went over the drop; before her was a dead end and a six meter drop into the muddy river below, and with the all the rain they’d had over the last few days it was churning and flowing much more quickly than usual. There wasn’t anywhere for her to go. She wouldn’t get far running parallel to it before Ebby caught up with her.

“Thank Celestia,” said Ebby as she emerged from the trees panting for breath. Much too close for Scootaloo’s liking.

“Go away! I don’t want to go back again, and I don’t want to be part of your family if I have to leave Ponyville,” she screamed over the falling rain.

“I could stay here. Get a little apartment, maybe travel back and forth when we needed to. You could still see your friends, you would just be living with me instead of Main Course.”

I DON’T WANT TO LIVE WITH YOU! I WANT YOU TO GO AWAY! WHY IS THAT SO HARD FOR YOU TO UNDERSTAND?” screamed Scootaloo, stomping her hoof in the loose, muddy dirt by the edge.

“I’m not going to go away,” said Ebby. “I love you too much. We’ll find a way to make this work, though. Why don’t we go back to Main Course’s restaurant, dry off, and talk about it there? I bet he’d make us some hot chocolate if you asked nicely.” She took a few steps closer to the edge. Mother and daughter were both just inches away from going over the side. Scootaloo stared up at her mother, almost close enough to reach out and touch her.

“I have nothing to say to you,” said Scootaloo. “I’ll be fine here in the forest. Just go away.”

“At least let me take you back to town before you catch a—”

I said go away!” she shouted.

And then Scootaloo stomped her hoof on the ground one time too many.

A chunk of muddy earth, already heavy from soaking up so much water over the last few days, began to shift under their hooves as it detached itself from the cliff face. Scootaloo barely even had time to react before she felt herself beginning to fall, but then her descent halted and the world around her glowed orange. She got a brief glimpse of Ebby’s horn shimmering before her body was tossed back onto solid ground, where the soggy grass cushioned some of the blow of her landing.

Ebby herself wasn’t as lucky. She cried out as her hooves lost purchase and she plunged towards the water below. She flailed for anything to hold onto and managed to hook a foreleg around the root of a nearby tree, freshly exposed by the mudslide. It creaked and groaned under the new weight hanging from it, but for the moment it held.

Scootaloo rushed over to the edge and looked down on her mother dangling precariously from the little shoot of wood. Ebby grunted and try to hoist herself up enough to get a hoof over the edge. Her rear legs kicked against the muddy cliff wall helplessly. Her foreleg wouldn’t reach quite far enough. “Citrine, grab my hoof and help me up, okay?”

Scootaloo reached a foreleg towards her outstretched one.

Then she paused. Slowly, she pulled it back. “I’m sorry. I just wanted you to go away. Why didn’t you just listen to me?”

Ebby’s hopeful smile disappeared, replaced by confusion. “We can talk about that when I get back up. I just need a little boost.” Something inside the cliff face made a sharp cracking sound. “Hurry.”

Scootaloo shook her head, and inched back from the edge. “You’re gonna go away now. You won’t be able to take me away again.”

Ebby went pale. “No. No, Citrine, please don’t do this. Please help me up, and I promise—”

“I’m tired of your promises,” interrupted Scootaloo. “You say you want to be my mother, but you don’t even call me by my real name.” She turned and began to walk back towards the treeline.

“Citrine,” her mother’s voice called after her. Scootaloo ignored it. “Citrine! ...Scootaloo!” Just a few more steps, and she was in the trees again. She pressed her back against a tree trunk and tried to block out her mother’s tearful screams for help. They seemed to go on and on, dragging her mind right back to being in her old bedroom while Ebby pounded on the door. Just like back then, if she just hid and stayed quiet long enough it would be over soon, and this time forever. Finally, there was a loud, wet snapping sound, and then a splash as something heavy hit the water. Scootaloo gasped and covered her head as she began to cry, overwhelmed with equal parts guilt and relief for what she’d just done.

“Geez, Ebby. For such a skinny mare, you’re really heavy.” Scootaloo spun around and looked out from behind her tree as Main Course’s voice pierced her hazy mind. There he was, laying belly-down in the mud with his foreleg reaching down the face of the cliff, straining as he heaved upward. A shaky orange hoof appeared from below, and dug into the slick ground with newfound determination and resolve. With one more yank Ebby’s upper half landed on the grass, the rain beating down on her cloak as she wriggled the rest of the way up on her own. “What happened to you?” he asked her. Scootaloo’s eyes met her mother’s. The look she was giving her wasn’t angry, but Scootaloo had never seen so much utter despair in a pony’s eyes before.

“I...” began Ebby. She looked at Scootaloo again. Main Course was too fixated on Ebby to have noticed her yet. “...I was looking for Scootaloo, and I slipped,” she said. “It’s a good thing you found me when you did. How did you know I was here?”

“Her friend Sweetie Belle told me where Scootaloo’s hiding. Then I heard you screaming and I came running. You’re never going to win Scootaloo back if you go getting yourself killed, right? What’s she going to do without a mom?”

Scootaloo stared at the pair in front of her. Did Main not know what she had done? That she’d tried to take Scootaloo away from him forever? “Daddy?” she asked.

Main’s head whipped around, and he galloped over to her. “Scootaloo, there you are.” He grabbed her up in a hug. “Are you okay? I missed you so much while you were gone!”

“Did you just... help Mom?” she asked. “Even though she took me away?”

“Well sure, how else are you two going to work things out?”

Scootaloo jumped up and hugged him. “I wanna go home now.”

“I think that’s a good idea,” said Main Course. “Come on, Ebby. Let’s all go home.”

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

It took Main Course nearly an hour to settle Scootaloo down enough that she finally fell asleep. He sat next to her for a long time after she finally drifted off, watching the blankets rise and fall with each little breath she took. She looked so peaceful, and he envied her temporary escape from the uncertainty she’d face when she woke up. Still, he knew he was just putting off talking to Ebby again. She hadn’t said anything on the walk back to the Knoll, she’d just stared at the back of Scootaloo’s head. Scootaloo had not once looked back at her.

When he finally did go downstairs, he found her sitting at a table still wearing her dripping-wet raincloak and covered in mud. A few sticks and pieces of bark poked out of her mane. Before he could suggest that she take off the cloak and hang it to dry, he noticed what was on the table itself.

An empty wineglass was situated in the middle of it, and Ebby had her hoof sitting on a bottle of red wine laying on its side. She rolled it slowly back and forth over the table’s surface, listening to the sloshing liquid as she did. “Ebby, what are you doing?” he asked cautiously.

Ebby kept watching the bottle for a minute longer, then looked up at him with bloodshot eyes and sniffled. “Do you remember where you woke up four hundred and eighty-four days ago?”

Main Course tilted his head at the apparent non-sequitur. “What does that have to do with—”

“I do,” she interrupted. “I’ll never forget. When I came to that morning, after doing Celestia-knows-what the night before, I was laying between two garbage bags next to a puddle of vomit in an alleyway behind a bar near where I used to live. Do you want to know the very first thing that went through my head was, once I was coherent enough to think again?”

“...Sure,” said Main Course, watching the way she was pulling the bottle close against her side.

“It was ‘I’m exactly where I belong.’ That’s how I felt. I was garbage. Worse than garbage. My daughter had been missing for a year, my husband thought I was beneath contempt, and every drink I took numbed the pain even as I hated myself a bit more with each sip. That’s when I decided that I was done. That wasn’t the pony I wanted to be anymore.”

Main Course walked over to her and laid a foreleg over her shoulder, but he wasn’t even sure she noticed. “Why don’t you give me the wine, okay?” he asked. He tried to take it, but she held firm.

“I haven’t had a single drop since. I figured that was rock bottom. It’s been hard, Main. It’s been so, so hard. When I told Obsidian I was quitting, do you know what he did? He laughed at me. He told me I was a pathetic drunk and I always would be. That if it weren’t for him I’d be in a gutter, or jail.” She scoffed at the memory. “I had a lawyer draw up the divorce papers the next day.”

“How’d he take that?” asked Main Course.

“He didn’t think I was serious. Wouldn’t sign them, and told me if I sued for divorce he would drag me through court for years and leave me bitless.” She glanced up at him. “So the third time I ‘asked’ I came up behind him when he was reading something, put a knife to his throat, and told him he could sign the papers and give me a decent chunk of his money, or he could bleed to death on the floor of his den and the whole world would hear about what an abusive bastard he was.”

Main Course recoiled in horror. “Holy buck, Ebby, what were you thinking?”

“I was desperate,” she said and then grew quiet. “If I stayed where I was I’d be dead by now. I didn’t have anything to lose.”

“I don’t want to hear you talking like that,” said Main.

“It worked out. He decided to sign the papers. Ever the pragmatist, that one. So I took the hush money and we went our separate ways. It wasn’t easy. A lot of ponies I was counting on to stand by me chose him instead. So I invested the money and downgraded my life until I’d be able to live off the interest it earned if I absolutely have to.”

Main Course couldn’t help but grumble a bit. “Must be nice, not needing to earn a living.”

“You’d think so, wouldn’t you?” asked Ebby, smiling for the first time since he’d pulled her up from the edge of the cliff. “But it just left me more time on my hooves than I really knew what to do with. I wasn’t a mother anymore, or a wife. I filled the days with volunteer stuff as best I could, even tried my hoof at doing some writing. But no matter what I did, there was still this... this pressure in the back of my head. Any time somepony at a party offered me a drink, or I walked past a liquor store, or somepony mentioned that they’d gone to see a vineyard, all kinds of things would bring it out. The impulse to get drunk again, and spend a night just not caring. Because caring hurt, Main. It hurt a lot. But I figured out how to push back against it. A little mantra.”

“What was it?”

“I’d think to myself, ‘imagine how proud Citrine would be if she could see you now,’” said Ebby, a fresh tear running down her cheek. “‘You’re finally keeping that promise you made to her so many times. If she were here, she’d run up to you and give you a hug.’ I knew in my heart that she was out there, somewhere. I imagined a reunion happening a thousand different ways. Four hundred and eighty-four times now I’ve woken up and thought to myself, ‘you can’t have a drink today, because today might be the day everything finally starts to get better. You don’t want to be drunk when it does.’ And then one day I’m getting fitted for a dress and it happens.”

“I guess that wasn’t how you’d hoped it would go,” said Main Course, handing her a napkin.

She blew her nose on it. “I was so stupid. Why did I delude myself into believing I deserved a happy ending? It took me until tonight to realize just how awful I really was. What do I have to look forward to now? She doesn’t want me in her life, and why should she? I had a chance to show her I was different. I blew it. I’m so tired of fighting, and now I don’t even have anything to fight for. Still, four hundred eighty-four days, right?” Her horn glowed, and the cork of the bottle resonated with orange magic as it yanked itself out with a pop. “I guess it was a good run while it lasted.”

“Give me the bottle, Ebby,” said Main Course.

“No. I need it. I’ll just have one glass, then I’ll stop again. I just need one glass.”

Main Course yanked the bottle out of her hooves and held it out of reach. “I’ve known enough alcoholics to know there is no ‘just one glass.’ I won’t watch you do this to yourself.”

She sneered at him. “Nopony asked you to watch. Just give me the bottle and walk away. How I live my life isn’t your problem, or your business.” When Main Course didn’t reply, she slammed her hoof down on the table with a bang, making the wineglass wobble. “I said give it to me!

“And I said no. Deal with it.”

“I’ll pay you,” she pleaded. “I just told you I have money, right? Name your price. You want to charge me a thousand bits for the glass? I’ll cut you a check right now. It’s not like your restaurant is the only place to get it. I can always go somewhere else.”

Main Course raised a skeptical eyebrow. “In Ponyville? In the middle of the night? Not really. But fine, you want to throw yourself off the wagon? I’ll let you.” He reached over and poured, filling the wineglass nearly to the top.

“Thank you, Main,” said Ebby, reaching out a hoof to take it.

“Not so fast,” said Main Course, sliding it away from her. “You said name my price? My price is your daughter.”

Ebby stared at him, her jaw hanging slack as his words registered. “What do you mean?”

“If you drink that, it’s going to cost you her one way or another. I don’t want to see her get dragged back to Canterlot and stuffed into a foster home again, or make her watch you deteriorate back into a drunk. So first thing tomorrow you come down to Town Hall with me and sign away any claim you might have to her, forever. Then you walk out of our lives and, I don’t care, die in a gutter like your ex-husband thought you would.”

Ebby began to shake. “That’s... that’s cruel, Main. Besides, even if I agreed to do that what really makes you think I’d follow through?” She got a wild look in her eyes and began to rub her temples with her hooves. “I’ll... I’ll just take her back to Canterlot. Nopony ever has to know I drank a little bit. Even if you told them, I’d just say you’re lying. They won’t have any reason to believe you.”

“But you’ll know,” said Main Course. “You’ll know when it comes down to your daughter or alcohol that you won’t do the right thing. And I think you care about her too much to put her through that again. Better for her if you just disappear and she’s left wondering. I promise I’ll take good care of her.”

She squeezed her eyes shut and her chest began to to heave. “Please don’t. Please don’t make me choose like that. It isn’t fair.”

“It’s the choice you’re going to need to make every day for the rest of your life anyway. I’m just spelling it out for you. So what’s it going to be?” asked Main Course.

Ebby stared into his eyes, looking for any hint of a reprieve. There was none. “I want to do the right thing, Main. I want to do what’s right for her. But it’s so hard.” Ever so slowly, she reached for the glass of wine and brought it up to her face. The room fell silent as she stared down into it. So silent, both ponies could hear the tiny splash her teardrop made as it struck the surface of the wine. She cradled the glass, shuddering with excitement as she inhaled the fumes coming off of it.

“Well, I guess that’s your choice then,” said Main. Ebby glared at him, but didn’t reply. “Any final message you want me to pass on to the filly you’re never going to see again?”

“Tell her...” Ebby’s hooves were shaking so badly a few droplets of wine spilled onto the table. “Tell her I’m...” She tensed up and her breathing became heavier, coming in ragged pants through her gritted teeth. “I’m...” Her eyes went wide, darting frantically back and forth between the glass of wine and Main Course.

She let out an ear-splitting scream of defiant frustration and smashed the wineglass down onto the table. It shattered and sent wine mixed with shards of broken glass in every direction. She stared down at her cut and bleeding hoof, and the red wine that was slowly staining the white tablecloth a dark shade of pink. Then she turned to Main, an exhausted but joyful expression on her face. “I’m not thirsty,” she said. She slumped down to her knees and laid her cheek on the tablecloth.

“I’m proud of you, Ebby,” said Main Course quietly. He reached under her cloak and rubbed the back of her neck. Wordlessly, she reached up with her uncut foreleg and grabbed his hoof, clinging to it as desperately as she had the tree root earlier that night.

“Sorry about your tablecloth. I’m not usually that much of a drama queen.” She chuckled, but then grew serious again. “Do you love her, Main? Really love her? I already know the answer, but I need to hear you say it.”

“Yeah,” he answered immediately. “Yeah, I really do.”

“I’ve tried so hard to keep myself under control. I came close to the edge like that too many times. That’s no way to raise a foal. I need to give her more space if she’s ever going to accept me being in her life again,” said Ebby, wiping away a tear. “Can I ask you for another favor? I already owe you so much, I know, but I think you’ll be okay with this one. I need you to take Scootaloo back. I’ll get a little place here in Ponyville, somewhere far enough away that she won’t feel like I’m hovering. I’ll even tell Foal Protective Services I’m giving her up to you so that won’t be hanging over her head.”

“Ebby, that’s a big deal,” said Main Course. “If you give her up, you can’t just change your mind later. You won’t be her mother anymore.”

She shook her head. “I haven’t been her mother for a long time. It’s time I admitted that. But... even if she never speaks to me again, could you maybe meet me for lunch in town once in awhile? Tell me about what she’s doing? What she’s learning in school, and who she has a crush on, and what her dreams for the future are? Even if I never get any more than that, it would be enough just to know she’s happy.”

“Of course I will. I’m sure Scootaloo will come around,” said Main Course.

“I wish I believed you,” she muttered. She got up and wiped the blood off her leg before limping away from the table towards the front door. “She’ll be happier if I’m not here when she wakes up. I’ll see you tomorrow?” Without waiting for an answer, she walked out into the rain and out of sight.

 

 

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