• Published 6th Aug 2018
  • 1,097 Views, 73 Comments

Sugar and Spice - Pearple Prose

Saving the damsel in distress is less impressive when you're the one who ruined her life in the first place. Pony Joe is going to try anyway.

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Turns Out Sometimes, You Gotta Do Some Crimes

The worst day of Pony Joe’s life began, as all of his days tended to, with clear skies, the smell of hot coffee, and Sunny Skies talking about something he didn’t care about.

“–And she keeps on badgering me about this silly weather plan of hers! Everyday she just whines about ‘special occasions’ and ‘ideal atmospheric conditions’ and everytime I just say–” The pegasus mare threw her hooves up in the air and knocked the coffee cup she was holding with the tip of her wing, and splashed coffee across the top of the bar. “Oops. Sorry! And everytime I just say, look, nopony is going to see the weather at night and then she gets upset at me for not liking her weather plan and then–”

Joe, who hadn’t been listening for the last fifteen minutes, looked away from his newspaper and at the fryer next to him, then lit his horn and lifted out a tray of piping hot, freshly made donuts. They rested on the side while Joe slouched over to his table of ingredients. “Donuts’re ready,” he said, glancing back at Sunny. “You wanted chocolate frosting on them, right?”

“–And honestly being local weather manager is hard enough when you aren’t having to worry about your sister’s feelings – Oooh!” Sunny paused to take a deep sniff of the donut aroma that pervaded the air of the diner. She sighed. “You know me, Joe – can never turn down a chocolate donut!”

“Yup.” Joe covertly rolled his eyes. “Same order, every time, without fail.”

Sunny hummed, deep in thought. “Actually,” she said, “could I haaaave…” She stared off into space for a second or two.

Joe stared at her.

“…Sprinkles?” Sunny smiled at him sweetly.

“Sure,” he said, “coming right up.” He dropped a donut onto the counter in front of him and, in a quick and practiced motion, coated the top with an even glazing of chocolate and showered the whole thing generously in rainbow sprinkles. Then he slapped it onto a plate and slid it across to Sunny, who watched the whole thing with awe.

“Mmmm.” Sunny picked up her donut with reverent care and bit into it. Her eyes rolled back into her head as she chewed. “You make the best donuts, Joe.”

“I know.” And then Joe went back to his crossword puzzle.

It really was a beautiful morning in Canterlot that day. Sunshine slanted down through the windows of Donut Joe’s Diner, where a modest number of customers were grabbing some much-needed coffee on their way to work. The counter of Joe’s kitchen cut through the middle of the restaurant, parallel with a row of barstools and flanked at one end by a dusty, broken gramophone.

The diner itself had seen better days – beyond just the broken gramophone, the windows hadn’t been cleaned in long enough that the sunlight didn’t so much shine through them as it was sieved; the brightly painted tiles on the far wall had been turned into some strange, surreal mural after years of accumulated cracks; and there was a patch on the linoleum floor in front of the door that stuck to your hooves like velcro and would come off with a weird ripping sound.

The regulars had started referring to it as ‘the Patch’. It was probably meant as a friendly gesture, but the Patch was so legitimately unnerving that it came off as, at best, genuine terror.

Joe liked the Patch anyway. He was sort of like a father to it – and like all good dads, his child scared him too much for him to do anything about it. They had a strong relationship.

Sunny finished her donut and let out a tiny burp. “Oops! Excuse me!” She laid her head on the counter and sighed with satisfaction. “Ah, the perfect way to start the day. Joe’s coffee, Joe’s donuts, and then off to work to–” She paused. “Oh gosh, today’s going to be terrible. I just realised I’m going to be late to my meeting okay goodbye Joe thank you for everything goodbyeee–!” And she jumped down from her stool and cantered towards the door.

Joe didn’t look up to say goodbye – just frowned down at his crossword and listened to the clip clop clip clop riiiip clop of Sunny Skies’s departure. Last time he’d looked up, the sunlight had gotten in his aching retinas and his mood would be even worse than it already was. He hadn’t slept properly in about a week, it felt like. It was getting bad enough that he was having trouble just finishing this stupid crossword–

“That the Canterlot Herald?” came the voice from across the counter. It was rough, stained by years of tobacco, and familiar. “I was havin’ trouble with that one, too. Twenty-two across, yeah?”

Joe looked up at the dark shape that had blocked out the sunlight, and said nothing.

“’Mercenary.’” The stallion in the black suit propped up his elbow on the bar. He grinned at Joe like a shark.

Joe had hoped that if he hadn’t looked up, he somehow wouldn’t have caught his attention. Joe, despite what you’d think, was very much an optimist. “What do you want?” he asked, trying to sound firm even as the sweat started to prickle across his brow.

“Ain’t about what I want, doughboy,” said the stallion in black. “Boss wants ya. Grab the goods and get going.”

Pony Joe sighed.

“And you’re sure you’ll be okay without me, yes?”

“Father, for the last time! I am a grown mare! I can look after myself.”

“Pshaw! It was not so long ago that I was singing you to sleep and changing your smelly diapers, little one!”

Saffron Masala rolled her eyes and sighed. “Father…”

Coriander Cumin guffawed. “Oh, I do not mean it, dearest-to-my-heart.” He put a calloused, yellow hoof on his daughter’s own. He said, in the tongue of their homeland, soft and musical and familiar: “I just worry for you, you see. Canterlot is scary, and large, and strange. Allow a father this chance to be worried, yes?”

The two were sitting in a small corner of their restaurant, tucked away in their own little world. The Tasty Treat did not open for several hours, yet. Distantly, through the windows, they could see the early-risers drifting to-and-fro in the warm, damp air of the dawn.

“I promise you, Father,” said Saffron, smiling. “We have many friends here, now. Our restaurant, it is a hit!”

“Yes. Yes, it is.” Coriander, finally, smiled – a seldom-seen thing, usually, but it had become more frequent as of late. “Your mother would be very proud.”

He stood up from the table, picked up his saddlebags in his teeth and slung them onto his back. Saffron went over and helped him strap them on, for he was an old pony, and rotund, and thus he found it difficult to do such things these days.

When they were finished, Coriander looked at his daughter, sternly, and cleared his throat. “Now,” he said, “I have given you a list of things to do, as a reminder. You must water the herb garden daily, keep our larder stocked with fresh vegetables, wipe down the tables–”

“Yes, yes, Father, I know!” Saffron said, wrapping him up in a hug. “I will be fine. It will only be two days, yes? For your trip?”

Coriander smiled bashfully, just a little bit, but nevertheless he argued, “Well, I have never left you for two days before today! I cannot help it.” He grabbed Saffron in two hooves, pulled her in, and gave her a rough kiss on the forehead. “You are growing up! It is very exciting.”

Saffron gave her father a smile, but did not say anything. She loved him so very much, but…

Well. She was looking forward to the next few days, if she were to be honest with herself.

Coriander held his daughter in his strong, weathered hooves for a long moment. He stared at her. “Most importantly of all, Saffron Masala,” he intoned. “You will remind any who offend you that they must answer to me. Coriander Cumin will brook no insult.” Eventually, when she had given him a nod, he let her go, and held up a hoof. “Right! Off I go. To Ponyville!” he bellowed, and marched towards the door.

“I will pray for good fortune, Father!” Saffron sang to him as the doorbell chimed with its opening.

“Hah!” Coriander called back over his shoulder. “Pray for Ponyville, dearest, not for your old father! They are the ones who have to impress me if they wish for the Tasty Treat to bless their peasant palates!”

And then the door swung shut behind him, and he was gone, vanished into the hustle and bustle of Restaurant Row.

Saffron sat there, for a while, and listened to the tick-tock of the old grandfather clock in the corner. She pondered the possibilities left open to her. The restaurant was not to be opened for several hours yet.

Should she water the herb garden? Take inventory of the larder? Wipe the tables down?

Or she could go sunbathing in the Canterlot Gardens, like she’d wanted to do since she’d got here.

Saffron smiled. It was a good day in Canterlot.

The high-backed chair – almost a throne, really – spun around on well-oiled wheels, away from the picturesque view of High Canterlot, with its beautiful trimmed lawns and enormous manor houses. The brittle, aged pegasus stallion curled up in the chair met Pony Joe’s eyes, and he said, “Do you know what happened earlier today, Joe, my old friend?”

Joe fiddled with the rough, worn leather of his seat, and wished very dearly that he was somewhere else. “I don’t know, sir. What happened?”

Cuckoo Capone grinned, and waved a genteel hoof at the racks and racks of ornate cages that decorated the entirety of the western wall of his study. They each contained delicate, beautiful cuckoo birds, cooing to one another, and filling the study with a mildly unnerving ambience. “A little birdy sung to me, m’boy, and it was that old, sweet tune that I so dearly love to hear…” The old, yellow pegasus leaned forward out of his chair and slapped a hoof down on the surface of his enormous desk, rattling the box of Pony Joe Doughnuts on the desk. “Opportunity!

Cuckoo Capone had been a mainstay of Canterlot high society for many, many years, ever since he’d inherited the birdseed business from his late father, along with the entirety of his fortune. Nobles and businessponies loved him – he held enormous parties on his estate, flirted and gossiped and told anecdotes that made younger ponies listen in with intrigue. He played the part of everyone’s favourite rich uncle, complete with pipe and cane and generous, generous gifts.

Pony Joe didn’t know much about that side of the old pegasus – he was far more familiar with the crooked, conniving crime boss: Cuckoo Capone, with his nest of lies and blackmail.

“But we can talk about that in just a bit,” said Cuckoo. He reached over, pulled a glazed doughnut from the box on the desk, then climbed out of his luxurious office chair and swaggered over to the bird cages, balancing himself on a cane made from lacquered ash and adorned with a golden bird’s head at the top. “It’s been such a long time since we caught up, hasn’t it, Joey boy?” As he spoke, he fed crumbs of Joe’s doughnuts to his birds, clucking under his breath.

Joe gulped. He’d heard stories about those birds. Many of them made no sense – cuckoo birds didn’t eat ponies, did they? – but he knew that they had keen ears. If birds had ears. Do birds have ears?

Point is, they spooked him. Pony Joe didn’t like birds – could never tell what they were thinking.

“Can’t complain,” said Joe. Or wouldn’t, if he knew what was best for him, he amended in his head. “Thanks again, Mr Capone, sir.”

Cuckoo clucked with his tongue. “Think nothing of it, m’boy. A deal’s a deal, is it not?”

“Right. Yeah.”

“And it has been quite the luxurious deal, hasn’t it, Joey? For the both of us, that is.”

Joe nodded. He tried to ignore the sweat dripping down his brow.

Cuckoo looked over one shoulder at him, and gave him a smile that might be called fatherly, if it hadn’t seemed so very, very sharp. “How’ve my boys been treating you? Well behaved, I hope?”

“Perfect customers, Mr Capone, sir.” Pony Joe eyed – in what he hoped was a casual manner – the two suited stallions by the door. They looked on passively, although Joe couldn’t help but feel they were looking at him, expectantly. “Been a lovely bit of business, servin’ ‘em.”

“Oh, well, that is delightful to hear, Joey. It warms my heart – just like how your coffee warms my boys’ stomachs on lovely mornings such as these.” Cuckoo laughed, and ruffled Joe’s hair in a way that made him want to go home and take a shower. “And if all goes as-is, you can expect plenty of custom for as long as you need it.”

When Pony Joe was just a little colt, one of his favourite things in the whole wide world had been the ongoing adventures of Con Mane, legendary super spy. He didn’t really remember where Con Mane had come from – he probably wasn’t even a good guy, honestly – but he used to spend quiet afternoons and rainy evenings and boring school-days inside his head, imagining himself wearing a black tux and armed with awesome gadgets, saving the world with a smile and a lovely mare on his arm.

Con Mane had stuck with him for a long time, a little voice in his head – that foalish desire to be the hero. He’d chat with him, sometimes, when he was comfortable and warm in his diner, listening to his dad’s favourite music on the radio.

But Con Mane had died not so long ago, and Cuckoo Capone was stamping on his grave.

“Yes, Mr. Capone, sir.” Pony Joe tried not to sigh. “Thank you, again.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t thank me just yet, son,” said Cuckoo Capone. “I have more good news! The boys and I, we got a job for you. Something uniquely suited for you and your… situation.”

Pony Joe watched Cuckoo hobble back behind the desk. The old pegasus reached down, grunting as he pulled out a very heavy wooden drawer, and began rifling through it. From where he sat, Joe could see him push aside several pieces of paperwork, revealing briefly the red-and-gold of a familiar ledger.

“Ah, here we are,” Cuckoo said, slamming the drawer shut. He stood up and tossed a sheaf of paper onto the desk. “Take a look-see.”

Two faces stared up at Joe from the desk, black and white and slightly faded – a newspaper cutting from the Canterlot Herald. The pony on the left was a pretty mare – she wore dark eyeliner and jewellery that pinned back her long, wavy, beautiful hair. On the right, with a stubby arm slung protectively over his daughter’s shoulder, was a portly old stallion with a thick, dark moustache. The mare was smiling, while the stallion had elected to give the camera a steely glare.

Pony Joe didn’t have to read the text to know who these two were – Saffron Masala and Coriander Cumin, owners of the Tasty Treat. According to what he’d heard through the grapevine, they’d kickstarted some kind of culinary renaissance on Restaurant Row.

He pushed the newspaper cutting aside and, sure enough, there was a photograph of the Tasty Treat itself underneath. Somehow, even in a black-and-white photo, Joe could tell exactly how colourful the building was.

“See, Joey,” Cuckoo Capone began, leaning back once again in his enormous chair, “my boys and I, we got our hooves in a lot of pies. Your diner is just the tip of the iceberg.” He steepled his hooves and, for once, a serious expression crossed his gnarled old features. “We got half of Restaurant Row dancin’ to our tune, Joey m’boy, but it turns out that the Tasty Treat is too tasty a treat for us to pass up.”

Pony Joe fiddled with his hat – it was a sign of respect to remove your headwear in the Cuckoo’s presence – and avoided meeting the mafioso’s eyes. “And you want me to…”

“Show ‘em who’s really in charge around here,” Cuckoo spat. “Coriander Cumin, he’s out of town for the weekend, and he’s a stubborn old mule. Now? There’s just little Saffron, all alone, and the restaurant is ripe for the picking. So.” Cuckoo jabbed Joe with a hoof. “Take those big ol’ hooves of yours and put ‘em to good use. The boys and I would really appreciate that, see?” And he grinned that awful grin.

Pony Joe wondered what Con Mane would do in this situation. Outwit Cuckoo Capone with wonderful wordplay? Render him helpless with a superpowered gadget?

He probably wouldn’t agree to the terms, and he definitely wouldn’t leave with his tail between his legs.

But Pony Joe wasn’t Con Mane. That was just the long and short of it.

“Yes, sir. I understand.”

“Ah, wonderful!” Cuckoo reached out and bumped Joe’s hoof, sealing the deal. Then he glanced down at an ostentatiously huge watch on his wrist. “Ah, just in time for your next shift. I shall make a note of your generosity for the future, Joey m’boy. Boys, show our friend to the door.”

On cue, something tapped insistently on his shoulder. Joe got up, replaced his hat, mumbled out a “thanks for your time” and was led to the door.

“See you in a hour or so, Joe,” said one of the goons, as they walked him back through the opulent manor of Cuckoo Capone. “Warm up some o’ dose bearclaws for me, yeah?”

“Yeah, sure.” Joe thought, distantly, back to the sight of Cuckoo Capone, nestled in his chair, scratching something down into his ledger.

Then he looked out, across the grand view of the city of Canterlot, towards Celestia’s Sun setting on the far horizon.

Night was falling, and he had a job to do.

In the mornings, Saffron would put together a pot of tea, just like her mother used to make when she was a filly. She would let it sit on the side while it steeped and she made breakfast, and the smell of food and delicious tea together would rouse her father from his snoring slumber upstairs.

By the time she remembered that her father was away, the tea had gone cold. Then she got upset for a little while.

Then she realised she was going to be late, went “Eep!”, and ran out the door.

La Cocina de Cardamomo – Cardamom’s Kitchen, as Cardamom herself had told her – sat near the centre of Restaurant Row, sandwiched between a failing deli and a place that sold paninis. It was smaller than either of them, but had more business than both of them put together; Cardamom and her family lived inside the tiny building while their customers spilled out into the street, taking up residence at the various old camping tables that the staff would set up at the crack of dawn.

Customers always asked Mama Carda why she hadn’t upgraded to a larger, more expensive establishment, and Mama Carda would always just smile, say that she’d always wished ponies would relax and enjoy the sunshine once in a while. Then she’d ask them if they would like another cup of tea, and the customers would always say yes.

Everyone loved Mama Carda. Saffron adored her.

“Carda!” Saffron called out as she pushed open the door to the Cocina. Behind the counter, the kitchen was a blur of motion – ponies hurried back and forth and shouted out orders in all sorts of different languages, flipping saucepans and slicing up vegetables and, at the head of it all, Mama Carda herself commanding them all like an orchestral conductor.

Carda looked towards the door, and beamed with delight when she saw Saffron standing there waving at her. “Saffron!” The earth pony mare ducked past various passing cooks and waiters, snapping off directions and advice in between shouts to her favourite customer: “You are here for those ingredients you ordered, yes? And please, take a seat!”

Leaning against the large window at the front of the Cocina, there was a row of wicker chairs for customers waiting for take-away orders. Saffron took a seat, looked to her left at the window-ledge where Carda kept her plants lovingly arranged, and took a deep sniff of a petite flower with bright orange petals.

“Very pretty, yes?” said Carda, sitting down on the chair next to hers. Wrinkles crinkled kindly at the corners of her eyes when she smiled, her greying mane curled into a ponytail that draped over her shoulder. “They are something new I discovered in the market the other day.” She held out a small basket full of herbs and spices that Saffron had requested the other day.

“It smells so very delightful!” Saffron took the basket gratefully and beamed at her. “I have never seen such a plant.”

Carda lifted a nearby watering can and tended to the orange flowers. “They are a very special flower from the farthest edges of Equestria. A beast known as the tatzlwurm is said to cultivate them – not because it wants to eat them, but because the delightful aroma lures in hapless prey.” Carda glanced at Saffron’s look of sudden horror and laughed. “Do not worry, cariño, I am not intending to eat you anytime soon!”

Saffron eyed the plant again, muzzle scrunched in distaste. “Well. At least it looks lovely…”

Tastes lovely, too! I’ve been using the leaves for my morning tea and they are quite delicious. Speaking of…” Carda went behind the counter and produced a pot of tea. “You look like you haven’t had your morning tea, my dear Saffron.” And she winked a beautiful green eye at her.

Saffron got up and walked towards the counter. “Oh, if you were making this for a customer, I do not wish to–”

Cardamom waved away her concerns and offered her a fresh cup of hot, bright orange tea. “Do not be silly. I set this to boil the moment I saw you come in.”

Saffron stared at Carda dumbly and didn’t resist her when she pushed the cup of tea into her hooves. “But I did not see you even–”

“And besides,” Carda went on, propping her elbow on the counter and leaning a head on her hoof, watching Saffron’s expression. “I would not give away my precious supply of tatzlwurm tea to mere customers, cariño.” And she gave her another wink.

Saffron didn’t know what to say to that, so she just drank her tea instead. It was delightful, as Carda had said.

She sat there for a little bit, while Cardamom went back to directing her staff around the kitchen, waiters flowing in and out of the front door like passing traincars. Eventually, Saffron looked up at the clock, realised that she had a busy day ahead of her, and got up to leave. “Thank you so much for the tea, Carda!” Saffron called out, “but Father is away and I must get to work!”

Cardamom looked over in her direction, opened her mouth to say something, and then paused as she stared at something over her shoulder. Saffron glanced back through the window behind her, and only saw the ever-present sea of customers.

When she turned back, Carda was rattling off something in a language she didn’t understand to a burly-looking family member beside her. Then she turned back to smile at Saffron, saying, “I am sure you will not disappoint your father, Saffron Masala. You two are like the tatzlwurm and the flower, yes? You work with one another. Now, you must simply stop being the flower.”

And then Mama Carda gave Saffron a look, and Saffron could see the side of Carda that had seen her become the owner of one of the most successful businesses on Restaurant Row. “Now? You must be the wurm.”

The two waved goodbye to one another, and Saffron left. Outside, Carda’s burly-looking family member was telling a strangely-dressed stallion who was smoking a cigarette to leave. Saffron gave the stallion a frown – who even wears a big black suit on a sunny day? – and went on towards the Tasty Treat.

The Roasted Root was on fire again. Normally this wasn’t a problem – it was run by a dragon, for one, and serving up enough flame-roasted ratatouille to meet the demand meant that it tended to get a little hot under the collar in the kitchen, for two.

The moment Joe turned the corner, though, and spotted the plumes of smoke being funneled into a dusky-dark ashcloud by the local weather team, he knew it was the Bad Kind of “on fire” — the kind where Ginger lost out on too many customers and started showing off too many teeth.


Speak of the devil. Joe spotted a small crowd forming in the street, which only seemed small because Ginger was in their midst, standing taller than even Princess Celestia at the shoulder. He trotted over to them while they tore into a hapless earth pony at their feet (verbally, of course. Once, Ginger had accidentally bumped into Joe, and proceeded to feel guilty about it for the next month.)

“Mornin’, Ginge,” said Joe, pushing through the crowd. “See you making some new friends.” Ginger and the rest of the staff of the Roasted Root, undaunted by the smoke pouring out of their restaurant behind them, had set up shop right on the street; an orderly queue of ponies with jangling coinpurses stepped up to Ginger’s enormous makeshift stove-fire, and Ginger and their crew gave them their orders directly from the grill. The ponies who weren’t looking to buy were just there for the spectacle, Joe supposed.

Eyes still locked with Deep Fry’s, Ginger just grunted over their shoulder at him. “Charming,” they growled, the ‘m’ sound swallowed up by the rumbling tindre of their draconic voice. Deep Fry whimpered. Apparently the earth pony had dropped something or other onto the sidewalk right before Joe had showed up. Probably unworthy of note on a day where Ginger wasn’t feeling a little on-edge, but today certainly wasn’t that.

Eventually, Ginger turned back to the enormous iron skillet that served as their workstation, sparing Joe intermittent glances as they worked. “’S good to see you, Joey. You bring the goods?” No longer the centre of their attention, Deep Fry slowly deflated, and then ran back to work before Ginger decided he was slacking off or something.

“Yep yep. Right here.” Joe levitated the box of doughnuts onto a hastily-erected camping table. “Not gonna lie, I’m liking the setup. Real nostalgic-like, you know?”

Ginger barked a laugh, and immediately triggered the fight-or-flight responses of half of the members of the crowd. Even Joe jolted a little bit at the sound. “Nostalgic for when I first got here, you mean? Nostalgia’s overrated. This lemonade stand routine gonna cost me, like, two thirds of my usual customers these days. Gimme those.” Ginger reached back and snatched up a donut, comically tiny in their enormous hand, and popped it in their mouth. “Mmm. Needed that.” Ginger paused. Smiled. “For the customers, of course.”

Joe would have laughed, but Ginger made the same joke every time, and he didn’t really feel up to laughing that day anyway. “Yeah, ‘course.”

Ginger didn’t say anything for a fair while – just let themselves fall into the easy rhythm of cooking while ponies bustled around them. Toss the vegetables in the pan, flip them back and forth, serve them up. Toss, flip, serve. Toss, flip–

“Hey, Joe, could you lend me your horn for a moment?”

Joe blinked, came back to himself. “Yeah, I guess. What do you need?”

Ginger looked down at the pegasus chopping vegetables next to them. “Go take your break early, Shallot.”

Shallot glanced up, startled. “But I–” Then she looked over at Joe, back at Ginger, took the hint. “Oh. Righto. See you in a bit.” She put the knife down on the table and flew off.

Ginger looked back at Joe. “Need someone to chop these vegetables for me, turns out.”

Joe laughed, despite himself. “Alright, I can hang around for a little bit.” He trotted over to Ginger and picked up the knife in his magical grip. “Been a while since I’ve worked in a kitchen. Or outside a kitchen, I guess? What do you even call this setup anyway?” Joe gestured to the camping tables that the kitchen staff were using to prepare their meals.

“’Familiar’ is what I’d call it,” said Ginger, flame flickering at the edges of their nostrils. They tossed some searing-hot food from the griddle onto a nearby dish. “You think we had comfy kitchens in the Dragon Lands?”


“You’d be right. And if I had had a comfy kitchen, then the other dragons would have smashed it up and told me to go eat rocks like everybody else.”


“And I would eat rocks like everybody else. You know why?”

“Because rocks are delicious.”

“Because rocks are goddamned delicious, that’s why.” Ginger looked down at him, eyebrow arched in suspicion. “I haven’t told you this before, have I?”

Joe looked up at them, smirking. “Oh, no, only every other day or so.”

“Oh.” Ginger nodded. “Good. Rocks are delicious.” They picked an errant onion off of the roasting hot skillet, inspected it grimly between two talons. “No idea why you ponies love this weird stuff.”

“Probably because rocks break our teeth and rip up our insides.” Joe slid a bowl full of chopped vegetables over to Ginger and leaned back against the table edge, watching the staff as they worked. “We non-fire-breathing types had to make do somehow.”

“S’pose. Can’t really complain, seeing as I’m the one cooking this stuff for you weirdos.” Ginger sighed, tossed the onion back onto the skillet, and said, “So when are you going to quit?”

The table screeched as it slid forward an inch on the cobblestones. Joe had pushed it back when he’d seized up in surprise. “W-What?”

Everyone stared at them for a second, then looked away when they noticed Ginger glaring at them. They turned back to Joe, expression neutral. “You got a buyer lined up for the Diner already? Or is that why you came over here to see me?”

Joe stood up straight and scowled. “Don’t be stupid. I ain’t selling the Diner. And I ain’t leaving.”

“Very convincing,” said Ginger.

“Shut up,” said Joe. He’d intended it to come out sounding all angry but instead he just sounded like a bratty teen. “I just came to deliver your damn donuts, not so you could make fun of me.” And with that, he began to walk away.

“Joe,” said Ginger, whose voice had become altogether too un-Ginger-like. “I wasn’t making fun of you. I just…”

Joe paused, glanced back at Ginger over his shoulder. Their expression made him sweat, despite himself – made him think, ‘Do they know?’

Ginger said, “If you’re unhappy now, Joe, it might be better to quit while you’re ahead.” Then, after a moment’s pause, turned back to their staff and shouted, “Hey, flowerbrains, is the restaurant aired out yet?!”

Immediately, Deep Fry ran back inside the restaurant, then hollered out an “all-clear”. The staff of the Roasted Root, as one, gave out a sigh of relief, then began to dispense their remaining orders while gathering up all their gear to return indoors. Joe could see the expressions on their faces — focused; proud; at home. They didn’t look at Ginger the same way the crowd did.

Ginger directed them, and they listened. Sometimes, Joe figured, dragons found other things to hoard besides gold.

On her way to the Tasty Treat, Saffron Masala had ran into several ponies in the street that she’d recognised – whether as customers or as “competitors” – and had taken great delight in waving and giving greetings to them all.

She’d never really understood why some ponies were quite so obsessed with the idea of competition, if she had to admit it to herself.

And it made even less sense when one considered the sheer variety on display on Restaurant Row – whether it was Mama Carda and her Cocina, or the Tasty Treat and its authentic cuisine, or… hadn’t Saffron seen a dragon roasting vegetables earlier this morning?

There was more than enough variety on Restaurant Row for every creature to find their niche, as far as Saffron was concerned, especially after the whole Zesty Gourmand debacle. The camaraderie was nice. Often, Saffron would get bombarded with recommendations for countless places she’d never even heard of before.

A lot of ponies kept mentioning one establishment in particular – Donut Joe’s? Supposedly the donuts were to die for, as long as you could ignore the Patch.

Whatever that was.

Maybe she’d visit it tonight? As a little treat for herself, while her father was away. Saffron smiled to herself, and giggled.

She turned the next corner, and she saw the Tasty Treat in front of her. Her smile fell. The basket of herbs followed suit, green shoots splaying across the pavement.

Windows smashed. Door ajar. The broken remains of jars of food rolling around on the ground out front.

Graffiti was scrawled across the once-lovingly-painted exterior – a giant, yellow bird, beak open as if it were laughing in mockery.