When Saffron went to Donut Joe’s Diner that night, the stars were alive again.
The first time she’d seen them move, it hadn’t been much more than a trick of the light – tiny shifts in the stars and the constellations. This time, though, the Princess of the Night was demonstrating exactly how she’d earned her station.
Constellations spun and sparkled and reshaped themselves on a whim. One moment, they were ponies, uniting together to battle a sky-swallowing darkness. Next, they were galaxy-spanning dragons, countless light-years from their teeth to the tips of their tails. They flew across the sky, shifting and shrinking until what once were dragons were now an army of gryphons, marching to war.
As Saffron turned the corner and spotted the warm glow of the Diner, she noticed that somepony was sitting on a deckchair on the sidewalk outside. They’d set up a small camping table, too, where a pair of coffee mugs sat amongst a selection of biscuits and pastries and, of course, donuts.
Pony Joe spared Saffron a glance as she approached, then returned to staring, starstruck, into the aether. “Pretty, huh?” he said. He waved a hoof at the empty chair next to him. “If you angle it just right, you can sorta see a face over there.” He pointed a hoof towards a spot on the horizon.
Saffron curled up on the chair, tail wrapping around herself, and looked where Joe was pointing. “Can you?”
“Well. I think I can, anyway. Maybe it’s just a cloud that some lazy pegasus left behind.”
“Perhaps.” Saffron shrugged. “It is beautiful all the same. Though, I wonder what is the occasion?”
“Probably something to do with that school Princess Twilight opened up a while back. Friendship among all the creatures of the world, or something.” Joe looked at Saffron – watched, for a moment, the movements of the stars reflected in her eyes. “Thanks for coming.” He gave her an easy smile.
Saffron looked back at him, caught his eye for a moment. Looked down, suddenly, at the pastries on the table between them. “No. Thank you for inviting me. Truthfully, this is the first time I have left the Tasty Treat since…” She gestured vaguely with a hoof. “You understand.”
“Yeah,” said Joe. He went back to watching the stars. “Yeah, I get whatcha mean.”
A brisk wind blew by them, suddenly. Joe shifted in his seat. Saffron shivered, just a little bit.
“Geez,” said Joe. “Hey, did you bring that tea?”
Saffron perked up. “Oh! Yes, of course.” She lit her horn and, very carefully, lifted a corked drinking flask from her saddlebags. “Now, this,” said Saffron, grinning, “will put an end to the tea-tyranny of this ‘Earl of Grey’.” And she shook the flask for good measure.
“Careful,” Joe warned, pushing his mug across the table towards her. “That stuff sounds flammable.”
Saffron giggled and stuck her tongue out at him. “Now, I did alter the ratio of ingredients just a little bit since the last time I tried it,” she explained as she poured the steaming liquid into Joe’s cup. “So the likelihood of potential growth of body hair in uncertain places should be less of a worry, yes?”
“Honestly? I could go for a little extra on the ol’ muzzle here.” Joe massaged the crop of wispy-looking hairs on his lower lip. “Something a little more ‘Caballeron’ and a little less… I dunno. ‘Me’, I guess.”
“Hmm…” Saffron looked him up and down for a moment. Thought about it. Then waved a hoof at him dismissively. “Don’t be silly. I think you look presentable just as you are.”
“Well, yeah, but, like.” Joe crossed his arms and sulked. “How am I supposed to stand up to Cumin when he’s running the full macho monte and all I’ve got are these.” Joe made a face and fiddled with his facial hair again. “It’s embarrassing.”
Saffron studied Joe for a moment. She stared at his upper lip, and imagined him with a bushy moustache like her father’s.
She put down her donut. “I think I may have just lost my appetite.”
Joe cackled and lifted his mug of Saffron’s tea. “Well, too bad! ‘Cause once I drink this, I’ll be king of Canterlot.” He paused. “I mean, assuming I don’t explode first.” Joe lifted his mug to his muzzle and gave it an experimental sniff. His eyes widened. “Whoa.” He leaned his head back a bit, stared into the reddish-brown surface of the drink. “This smells… good.”
Saffron rolled her eyes. “I thought that we had already spoken about your dishonesty, Donut Joe.”
“No, no!” Joe took another, deeper sniff, and let out a pleasant sigh. “I wasn’t like, just being polite; this smells amazing.”
“O-Oh.” Saffron lifted her neckerchief to cover the blush on her cheeks. “Well. Thank you for the kind words.” And then she poured some tea for herself, and took a deep inhale of her own. “Perhaps we should do a toast?”
“Huh. Sure. A toast to what, though? Or who, I guess.” Joe thought for a moment. “Uh. To freedom?”
Saffron pondered. “Hm. Rather vague, is it not?”
“I thought that was the point of toasts. Being vague and self-congratulatory is, like, Canterlot’s national pasttime.”
Saffron frowned at him. “Are you telling me that you have never performed a proper toast before?”
“I… guess not? I get the feeling I’ve opened a real can of worms here.”
Saffron sat up on her chair and raised her mug. “The purpose of a true toast,” she intoned, raising a hoof like a university professor, “is to pay tribute to that which you owe a debt of gratitude. It might be a pony. It might be a place. Or it might be something entirely different.” Saffron grinned. “Like your dragon friend!”
“Whoa, hey, I thought we talked about the racism. That’s not cool, Saff.”
“No, no, no. That was a joke. Because I do not actually think that, now, see?”
“Such a shame,” Joe said, shaking his head. “And on the same day that we’re supposed to be celebrating peace-among-species, too. If only your father could see how far you’ve fallen.”
“Urrrrgh.” Saffron threw her hooves up in mock-frustration. “You are insufferable. I should have just let my father punch you in the face this morning.”
“Oh, yeah, speak of the devil. Didn’t he call me a serpent that one time? Like, what was up with that?” Joe sniffed haughtily and looked at her askance. “Perhaps the apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree?”
“Oh, do be quiet. You should drink your tea before it gets cold, by the way.”
Joe rolled his eyes and chuckled. “Fine, fine. If it doesn’t give me a moustache, though, I want my money back.” Joe looked down at his drink, considered the smile on his reflection’s face for a moment, and then took a sip.
The taste was bitter, at first, but far from unpleasant as far as Joe was concerned. He licked his lips and let the taste settle on his tongue, then swallowed. A pleasant, peppery heat began to emanate all the way down his throat, but it never once became uncomfortably spicy – only ever a pleasant, exotic warmth.
Saffron stared at him, anxiety written into the lines on her face. “’Whoa’? Does that mean that you like it?”
Joe stared at her, eyes wide. “I love it,” he said, before taking another sip. “What’s in it? How did you make it?”
“Umm. Lapsang Souchong mixed with long-grained pepper, dried ginger, some flakes of red pepper, and cumin.” Saffron sipped from her own cup. “Not much to it, really. The trick is to savour the smells and mix them together just right. But it is very pleasant, no?”
“Very much so.” By the time she had finished speaking, Joe had already practically finished his cup. He sat back in his chair and stared at the stars while he considered. “I can’t help but feel like it’s missing… something, though. Something to go with the bitterness…”
They sat in a contemplative silence for a while.
“Oh!” Joe leapt to his hooves, a huge grin on his face. “I know what this needs!” And then he scurried back through the door of the Diner, pausing just long enough to say: “Hey, do you wanna come inside? It’s starting to get a little chilly out.”
Saffron didn’t answer for a while. She was watching the stars as they formed into the shape of a face.
“Okay,” said Saffron, and then she got up and followed Joe inside.
Seeing Saffron Masala sitting in his diner in the dusky hours of the night was very strange for Pony Joe. He found it hard to concentrate on digging through the shelves when, occasionally, he would glance back at her and just see the tears that had streaked her face the night after he had almost ruined her life.
But then, whenever she laughed at some stupid joke he made, he could only remember the look of happiness on her face when he had offered to help her fix his mistake.
He had been so busy remembering it, in fact, that he banged his head on the shelf when he wasn’t paying attention.
“Ow!” He reeled back and rubbed his head. “Wow, that stings. I think a bird must have bit me there or something.”
“You know, it is funny,” came Saffron’s voice from behind him. “That noise you made sounded just like a cuckoo clock going off.”
Joe turned around and glowered at her. “Har de har. Remind me to tell the murder-birds to attack you next time.”
“It is not my fault that birds hate you, Joe.” Saffron grinned. “Or perhaps they just find you irresistible. Like a donut!”
“Har de har. Again. You’re on a roll..”
Joe turned back to the row of shelves. “Now, how about you actually try and help me this time. I swore it left it right over… Oh.” Joe looked down at where the jar had been thrown to the floor after he’d knocked his head. “Never mind then.”
Saffron giggled. “I was wondering when you would notice.”
“You’re a cruel mare, Saffron Masala.” Joe smiled and shook his head, lifting the jar up from the floor. “Could you pour me another cup of tea, please?”
“’Twould be a pleasure!” The aroma of the tea wafted up from the cup and began to fill the diner with a pleasant, spicy scent. “What is in that jar of yours, then?”
Joe unscrewed the lid and scooped up a spoonful of an orange-brown powder. “Cinnamon sugar! I put it on donuts sometimes. I was wondering what might go nicely with your tea and I think this might, like, y’know. Kick it up a notch.” He mixed the cinnamon sugar into the tea, tapped the spoon on the edge of the cup, and then lifted it to his lips. “Cheers!” And then he drank.
Saffron watched his expression shift as he tasted it. He went from curious, to surprise, to deep contemplation, to eventually just a look of genuine bliss. “Well?”
Joe just smiled. “Yep. Cinnamon sugar. Just what it needed.” He sat back in his seat and sighed happily. “Boy, I’m good.”
“...Boy?” Saffron blinked, looked around in confusion. “But I am not a boy. Who are you talking t–?”
“No, no, I mean–” Joe paused. “You know, instead of getting into the semantics, why don’t you just try this?” He pushed the jar towards her.
Saffron eyed it. “It does sound rather nice.”
“Go on! See for yourself.” Joe paused. “Or, taste it, I suppose.”
Saffron sighed, but she couldn’t stop herself from smiling. “Fine.” She tugged the jar of sugar towards her. “You have piqued my curiosity, Pony Joe. But this better be good!”
Joe idly watched her mix in the sugar for a moment, before something in the corner of his eye caught his attention. He stood up. “Hang on just a sec, there’s something else I wanted to show you, actually…” He wandered over to the record player in the corner.
Saffron tapped her spoon on the edge of her teacup, watched the grains of sugar as they dissolved. Then she lifted the cup to her lips and took a drink.
Joe was right. The tea was delicious.
And in the lamplit gloom of Donut Joe’s Diner, an old record player burst into life for the first time in years. It was silent for a few moments, save for the odd crackle and pop as the record started to turn. Then, eventually, the sounds of a saxophone crooned out from the speaker.
Joe wiped the sweat off his brow and stepped back to admire his handiwork. “Tea,” he mused. “Record players. Honestly, is there anything Pony Joe can’t fix?” He wandered back behind the counter. “Geez, I haven’t listened to this song in… years.” He dropped back into his seat and yawned. “My dad’s favourite song, I think. So? Nice song, huh?” And he gave Saffron a wry grin.
Then he froze. Saffron was gazing down into the teacup in her hooves, silent and still. Her golden hairband sat on the table next to her, and her flowing fuchsia mane had settled around her face.
“Hey, uh, Saffron. You okay?” A painful memory stung Joe like a needle, and he leaned across the bar to look at her, concern and anxiety flooding into his chest. “Did I say something wr–”
And then Saffron leaned forward and kissed him.
Oh, Joe thought.
Well. That’s probably a good sign.
Eventually, after a few long, tender moments, Saffron broke off the kiss and slowly leaned back.
Joe stared at her, dumbfounded.
“Has anyone ever told you how sweet you are, Pony Joe?” Saffron gave him a half-lidded smile.
“Well. I think you are, anyway.”
They gazed into one another’s eyes for a long, long moment, without saying a word.
Joe reached up with a hoof and brushed it through Saffron’s beautiful mane, and smiled. “I’m not going to say it, y’know.”
“…I am sorry?”
“I am not going to call you spicy. That’s what you’re expecting, right? Like, that’s where this is going? ‘Cause I ain’t doing it.”
“But it would be so nice!”
“Come on! It is romantic!”
“It is not.”
“And it would be a lovely compliment! I like spices. They are good.”
And Saffron kissed him again. And when she pulled away this time, all that Joe could see was the lamplight dancing in her eyes. “Okay. But now you have to dance with me.”
And Pony Joe smiled a winning smile. “That, I can do.”
Far, far above the beautiful city of Canterlot, the stars were alive. They were swaying, and they were shifting, and they were sparkling.
And some ponies thought they were dancing.
It was the best night of Pony Joe’s life.