So far, today hadn’t been the worst day of Pony Joe’s life– it would have to be really, quite incredibly horrible to outdo the previous one. It was over with now, though, and business had been particularly good. Cuckoo Capone, if nopony else, was satisfied.
Knowing this only made Joe feel guiltier for having thought of it.
He sighed. Oh well, he thought. At least it was near closing time.
Night in Canterlot was a pretty thing – ever since Princess Luna had returned, the sky tended to be woven with enormous, twinkling constellations, like splendid silver tapestries. Sometimes, with no real rhyme or reason, Orion would release his long-drawn bow and fire a little arrow made of shooting stars at an unsuspecting Ursa Minor’s rump, or Draco would come to life and snake his way across the heavens and emit noiseless roars into the night.
Pony Joe liked it when Princess Luna did that. He tended to be one of the few ponies awake late enough to see it, and it was always a subtle thing, only there if you were paying enough attention. It reminded him of when he was a colt, on his birthday, when he’d stay up late and watch old movies with his dad, laughing at ponies doing silly walks and funny slapstick on a black-and-white screen.
Joe hadn’t seen his folks in a long time, he reflected, as he wiped down the countertop and put away his utensils for closing time. He reminded himself to go visit, soon, when he had enough spare cash for the train journey out to Manehattan.
He’d turned off most of the lights, leaving just the one overhead, and the rest of the diner sat in darkness, waiting for the new day to arrive. The radio, old and battered and faithful, played a piece of old jazz, and Joe tapped a hoof along to the beat as he cleaned up.
Then the door swung open, the old bell ringing in tired greeting, and a pony stepped in. Joe turned, and he stopped, with a premature frown falling from his face.
Saffron Masala wandered in out of the cool night air, hair bedraggled, eyes down, and sat in a darkened corner. She did not spare Joe a single glance as she stepped inside.
Joe didn’t move for a long time, rhythm forgotten. His heart pounded in his chest, and guilt wrenched at him painfully, pulled him down to the ground like some inexorable gravity, made him want to curl up into a ball so tight he would be able to block out the world.
Oh no, he thought.
His eyes, slowly, wandered up from the countertop and over to the mare, who had lain her head on the table, her long hair splaying out across the surface, over the edges, and dangling all the way to the floor.
Pony Joe didn’t know what to do. But Donut Joe, owner of Donut Joe’s Diner, knew exactly what to do with a customer, come rain or shine.
First, he reached for the lights and flicked on the ones in Saffron’s corner. Overhead, there was the tinking and blinking as a pair of fluorescent tubes winked into life. One of the dejected mare’s ears twitched, but Joe didn’t see any other movements.
Alright, Joe thought. Pony up, Pony Joe.
“Rough day, miss?”
Saffron Masala blinked. The bones in her arms seemed to creak and complain as she pushed herself up off the table, hair falling against her face and tickling her snout. She sneezed, reached up with a hoof to wipe away tears.
She turned, and saw a large, older unicorn stallion. He wore a baker’s hat on his head, and a white apron lightly spattered with coffee stains and smears of frosting. His face was rounded with chubby cheeks, and he had tired eyes, but he was smiling nonetheless, in a way that felt warm and familiar even though Saffron only knew his face from the sign outside his diner.
Saffron smiled, too, or tried to. She probably looked ugly, she told herself. “H-Hello. Yes. It has been a rough day. A very rough day.” She didn’t know what to say next, so she just sort of mumbled something that didn’t make sense to either of them.
Pony Joe’s ear twitched, and he nodded and gave a vague half-laugh. His horn glowed and a little notepad floated up from a pocket in his apron, along with a well-worn pencil. “Yeah, I know that feelin’. Can Pony Joe getcha anything at least, miss? We don’t close for a little while yet.”
Saffron blinked, and let out a little squeak of realisation. She looked around, found a menu lying on the seat next to her, and immediately picked it up and hid her blushing face with it. “Oh, I am very sorry, so very sorry, I had forgotten it was so late, I’m sure you’re very–”
Pony Joe grimaced, just a tiny bit, and held up his hooves to calm her. “Hey, whoa, whoa. It’s okay, miss. Rough day, I get it.”
Saffron peered over the menu at him. “Yes. Sorry. Rough day. I’ll have, um.” She scanned the menu, but her mind was blank but for memories of a ruined restaurant and worries of a furious father, and so the foreign words did not make immediate sense to her. “This! Yes, this seems very, um, good.” She pointed at a random option on the menu and smiled, extremely widely.
Pony Joe blinked. Then he looked at what she’d picked out, and smiled, almost in relief. “Oh! Yeah, I should have one of those left. You want anything to drink with that?”
“Um.” Saffron pondered for a moment. “Do you have any, uh… tea?”
Pony Joe rubbed his chin with his hoof. “Tea? Yeah, I should have some around. Earl Grey alright for ya?”
Saffron did not know who Earl Grey was, but she assumed they made nice tea, if this stallion was offering it to her. “Yes, his is my favourite tea.”
Pony Joe’s face flickered between amusement and bemusement for a moment before he scribbled something down and turned away, saying: “Alright, coming right up!”
Saffron watched Joe trot off behind the counter and begin rummaging under the countertop. He seemed like a nice stallion, she thought. Ponies in Canterlot seemed very nice in general.
But then, one of those Canterlot ponies had been responsible for destroying the Tasty Treat. Her livelihood. Her favourite place in all the world.
Tears poked at Saffron’s eyes and she let them run down her face and plink onto the tabletop.
How was she going to explain all this to Father?
Joe wiped his brow. So far, so good. For a moment, there, he thought he’d been mistaken about how much tea he actually had left – he only tended to order a little bit of it, his coffee was far more popular – but to his delight he had, in fact, found a pristine box of Earl Grey.
He tried not to think about how, no matter how much the mare enjoyed her sweets and tea, he was still the worst pony in the whole world.
“Order up, miss!” he called out, just loud enough to get her attention without startling her.
Saffron, after a moment, turned away from the window, and slid out of her seat and started walking towards the counter, fiddling with her bedraggled mane.
“A cup of Earl Grey, aaaaand…” With a small pause for effect, Joe lifted a silver platter onto the countertop in his magic. “One ‘New Donutopia’, fresh off the presses!”
On the platter, there existed a whole city block, frosted in all the different colours of the rainbow. Skyscrapers of layered pastry with fluted frosting minarets; city streets recreated in icing form, complete with little decorative street sign candles; and – the pièce de résistance – a recreation of the Royal Palace in the centre, down to the last exotic detail, made entirely out of doughnuts.
The look of wonder that spread across Saffron Masala’s face did, despite everything, manage to put one heck of a smile on Pony Joe’s face.
“It is wondrous.” Saffron sat down at the counter, taking in the entirety of the sugary spectacle with eyes as wide as dinner plates. “How… You have created this?”
Pony Joe buffed a hoof on his chest, and tried to conceal a proud smirk. “Yes, indeed I did, miss. Go ahead, tuck in!”
And so she did, although it took her a moment – she seemed hesitant to disturb the craftsmanship of the piece, but eventually her stomach rumbled and she took a bite out of one of the skyscrapers. As she chewed, her eyes almost seemed to roll back in her head in sheer delight.
When she swallowed, she slammed a hoof down the counter with almost frightening force.
“Great stallion,” Saffron intoned, in a tongue that Joe didn’t understand, “teach me your ways, for you are a master of your craft.”
Joe blinked. The intensity in the mare’s eyes was making him uncomfortable. “Um. Sorry?”
Saffron burped, then put a hoof to her lips. “Oh, my greatest apologies! I am… I lost myself. Please, sir, call me Saffron. Saffron Masala.” She turned her eyes back to New Donutopia, licking her lips in delight. “I would bump your hoof, but it shall be very sticky soon, I fear.”
Pony Joe laughed. It was an honest laugh. “No worries, miss.
"I mean, Saffron.”
“...And that is when Zesty Gourmand herself walked in, sneering as she does, for she is a wicked mare, and she shrieks, ‘What’s this?! What is everypony doing here?!”
Joe gasped. He was leaning over the counter, chin resting on a hoof as he listened, enraptured. “No way!”
“Yes way!” Saffron shouted, frosting dotting her cheeks. “And when all the customers were enjoying their food, too! It was so very rude.”
“Yeah, sounds like Zesty to me. So what happened? Did everypony leave or something?”
“No, no! In fact, everypony began to…”
Saffron wasn’t sure how long she’d been talking. Time and the world had taken a backseat, at some point, and there was only her and Joe and the diner, with its gaudy decor and cracked upholstery and the Patch. It was comfortable. It was familiar.
Except for the Patch, the name of which Saffron didn’t want to think a third time in case it awakened.
Oh, and there was New Donutopia, of course, but the fair city had seen better days by this point.
“...And then she ran off, into the night, and everypony in the Tasty Treat cheered! For it was a good day, and the evil mare was no match for our good cheer. And that is the end of the story.” Saffron licked her frosting-coated fork and dropped it onto the empty platter. She let out a small burp. “It is a good tale, yes?”
Pony Joe chuckled. “Yeah, I’ll say. Gotta be the most exciting thing to ever happen to Restaurant Row. Place is just a tourist trap, normally.”
Saffron poked him with a hoof and grinned. “That will be the case no longer, Pony Joe. Everypony is cooking food they love for ponies who enjoy it. It is a good place, now.” She held her cup of Earl Grey but did not drink from it – the taste was quite foul and unfamiliar, but she did not say anything, as she did not want to offend Earl Grey’s honour, whoever they were. “And it is all thanks to Rarity and Pinkie Pie!”
Pony Joe raised an eyebrow and whistled. “Man. You must be one of the luckiest ponies in Equestria, gettin’ two of the Elements of Harmony to help you out.”
Saffron sighed in content. “Yes. The Lady of the Lotus has smiled upon me, I am certain, for she sends two of her blessed mares to our aid.”
Pony Joe tilted his head at her. “Huh. Yeah, lots of ponies think the Elements of Harmony are blessed. They’re a pretty big deal.”
“I had not heard of them.” Saffron scratched her chin with a hoof and thought. “I think somepony explained to me who they were, but it held no meaning to me. They live in Ponyville, yes?”
Joe nodded. “Yep. They’re our resident superheroes, really. Like the Power Ponies. Or Con Mane.”
Saffron’s eyes widened. “You lie!” She gasped in delight.
“No, no, I swear!” Joe laughed at her expression. “Saved Equestria a few times now. Discord, Tirek, the changelings…”
Saffron’s eyes sparkled in the flourescent lights of the diner at dusk. She leaned in and whispered: “You must tell me everything. Everything!”
Joe smirked. He glanced up at the clock on the wall, and his face fell. “I’m real sorry, miss – closing time was ten minutes ago. I gotta get home for the night.”
Saffron blinked. Then she rubbed the back of her head in embarrassment. “Oh, right. Yes. I must be heading home too. Father will be–”
Then she blinked again. Slowly, she put her hooves to her face, and moaned into them. “Oh, ye gods, I forgot…”
Joe felt like he’d been slapped across the face. Oh. Right. Ruined livelihood. Right.
Worst pony in the world. Right.
“I. Um. Are you going to be okay, miss?” he said.
Tears fell down Saffron’s face as she began to sob into her hooves. “Oh, Joe,” she said, between breaths. “I… I don’t know what to do! Someone has ruined the Tasty Treat!”
Because Pony Joe couldn’t stand up for himself. Right.
“Oh… Oh, I’m so sorry, Saffron…” In that moment, Joe just wanted to reach across the counter and… make things right. Somehow.
“Do you need help?” Joe shouted, much louder than he intended, and he immediately slapped a hoof to his lips.
Saffron’s sobs quieted for a moment. She looked up at him over her sodden hooves, eyes red and wet with tears.
“I… I’m a strong guy.” Joe rubbed the back of his head and avoided her gaze. “I clean up a lot. I got magic. I can bring some stuff over tomorrow and I can… help out? I mean, I wouldn’t want to–”
“You would do that?” Saffron breathed. “For me?”
“I mean…” Joe imagined what Con Mane would do. Something cool, and suave. He’d give a winning smile.
So Pony Joe smiled, and he said, “It’s the least I can do. Day off tomorrow, anyway.”