• Published 6th Aug 2018
  • 1,092 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.

  • ...
2
 73
 1,092

Scammed an Old Man, and Then They Ran

The thing about selling pastries for a living, Joe thought, is that you don’t often have the time nor the inclination to work on your cardio. Maybe it was something he should look into after he’d finished running for his life.

“Get them!” shouted the mobsters behind him. “They’ve got the book!” Or at least they were shouting something to that effect. There were a lot of them shouting, and the sound was echoing off the walls of the alley they were sprinting through, so there was a lot of general shouty-sounding noise going on. It was pretty easy to figure out the gist of it all, though.

A trash can manifested out of thin air and Joe stumbled into it with a sharp crash! He yelled, his magic winking out and sending the ledger flying to the ground–

–Only to be caught in the fuchsia glow of Saffron’s magic. “Don’t stop, Joe!” She squealed as she scurried past him into the street. “They’re right behind you!”

Joe scrambled up into a loping gallop. “Already?!”

“Not the ponies!” Saffron looked back, terror in her eyes. “The birds!

SQUAWK!

Too late. Two birds landed on Pony Joe’s shoulders and pecked at his face with their birdy beaks.

“Ow!” SQUAWK! Peck. “Argh! Stop that!”

The two of them rounded the corner just as they began to hear the rumble of oncoming gangster hooves behind them. Saffron whipped her head back and forth as she looked for an escape route. Joe did the same when the birds tried to peck his eyeballs.

“Where do we go, Joe?! What is the plan?!”

“I don’t kn–” SQUAWK! Peck. “Ow! Why are they only biting me?!

“I don’t know! Maybe it is because you smell like donuts!”

Oh, of course, blame it on the donuts. Typical. Joe wondered if Con Mane would have had trouble with bird attacks. Probably not – Con Mane smelled like cologne and classiness, not pastry and sugar.

Think, Joe. What would Con Mane do?

As if on cue, between the feathers flapping wildly about his head, Joe spotted a familiar door on the far side of the street.

“Saffron!” he shouted. “Through this – ow! – through this door!” And then he pumped his legs and barreled towards the door as fast as they could carry him.

“Joe, wait!” Saffron said, some ways behind him, “That’s not a door, that’s a win–”

And then she was cut off by the sound of exploding glass, and Joe’s world was consumed by a thousand stabbing beaks and needles.


It would have been a lot easier for Joe to just fall happily unconscious if it wasn’t for the shards of glass poking at his ribs.

“Mmrghh,” Joe mmrghh’d. He twisted his hoof and planted it semi-firmly on the ground, which was a difficult task mostly because the ground was covered in broken glass. There was a tinkling sound of shards scattering across the cold stone floor. “I should really get a broom for that,” Joe said, or tried to say, because it came out as just another, longer ‘mmrghh’.

He felt along the floor in the inky dusk of the building’s interior. Something about it struck him as familiar – the smell? Something spicy – and then his hoof struck against a solid, stout, broom-like object.

Something else fluttered into Joe’s periphery – voices? Shouting? – and he yanked on the broom, mumbling a plaintive ‘broom?’.

“No,” said the broom. “Dragon.” Then Joe realised that his broom was covered in scales and that a sharp set of talons was poking him in the side.

“…Ginger?”

Ginger was hunched over him, burnished brass body barely visible in the gloom. Behind them, the outline of a kitchen countertop covered in carefully arranged ingredients was visible – or, well, smellable.

“Joe,” they said. “Why are you covered in blood and on my floor at three o’clock in the morning.”

“Ginger!” Realisation hit Joe like a truck. He stumbled to his hooves. “Ginger, you have to help! There’s a–”

“DRAGON!” someone screamed.

Dragon?” Ginger’s draconic pupils contracted to paper-cut slits in her head. “Where– Who…?”

Joe spun around. Behind him was the shattered remains of the window he’d just thrown himself through. Saffron had been clambering through before she’d seized up at the sight of Ginger’s enormous form. “Joe, you are friends with a serpent?!

“…Serpent?” Ginger, all coiled claws and muscle, went slack for a second as they processed it.

“Okay, everyone please chill out for just a second.” Joe pulled Saffron through the window. “Saffron please don’t be racist to my dragon friend. Dragon friend, please help us not be killed by criminals.” He paused. “Also: Ginger, this is Saffron. Saffron, Ginger.”

“Charmed?” Ginger half-asked.

“Birds!” Saffron half-screamed.

“What?” Then Joe heard them shrieking as they regrouped. “Argh! Birds! Ginger, help!”

Ginger helped. They stepped over to a set of side-doors in the corner of the room and, in one heavy motion, yanked off the crossbar and shoved them both open. “Like this?” they said, still looking rather bemused.

There was a crash and the front doors to the restaurant, on the other side of a sea of dining tables, crashed open, three-or-four thickset gangsters tumbling through with a shout. Behind them, as if from the gates of Tartarus itself, came the flock of cuckoo birds, screeching as they scattered through the rafters.

Ginger huffed a puff of sparkling smoke. “And just what do you think you’re doing barging into my… restaurant…” Their tone fell from a smirking defiance to an aghast mumble.

Joe, who had been scurrying after Saffron towards the side-doors, glanced back as Ginger spoke, and faltered.

He watched, confused, as the mob of gangster-ponies navigated the restaurant floor towards them. Behind them, Cuckoo Capone followed. “Sorry about that, dragon. We’ll go ahead and get those vandals right out of your hair. Scales. Spikes? I’m not sure what those are– Whatever. Boys, seize ‘em.” The rest of the gang detached from his presence and headed straight towards Joe, who’d found himself frozen in place.

“I’m sure there won’t be any problem with that, right? Wouldn’t want your daddy to get word of any of this, would we?”

Then he laughed. It was a dark laugh – cruel, twisted by decades of bitter business and black market deals, years of deceitful manipulation and heartless machina–

Then a Ginger-sized bag of Ginger-grade ginger flew across the kitchen and exploded against his face, and the laughter sputtered into a hacking, wheezing cough. Ginger and the gangsters seized up in surprise. Then all of them darted over to help their boss get back on his feet.

Meanwhile, from the direction of the thrown spice-bag: “JOE!” screamed Saffron, jolting Joe back into action. “We need to go now!

She didn’t need to tell him twice. Joe immediately turned and sprinted towards the doors, Saffron only a half-second ahead of him.

“GET – ” Hack “–MY–” Cough “–BOOK BACK, YOU–” Hacking “–IDIOTS,” Cuckoo shrieked. The rapid clacking of hooves followed soon after, along with what sounded like Ginger apologising anxiously.

Joe hoped he was imagining that last part, that he’d gotten confused between the sounds of cuckoos’ cawing and the stallion’s shouting. He ran off into the night, feeling Saffron’s wind-whipped tail tickling his face.

Just what in Tartarus had that been about?


For the record, Saffron didn’t think she’d been racist to Joe’s serpent. That was just what they were, weren’t they?

Besides, it’s not her fault that serpents fly around and breathe fire and eat ponies for breakfast. Maybe they’d have a better reputation if they just relaxed, changed their attitude, opened up a restaurant or something.

…Okay, so maybe she was just a tiny bit racist.

More importantly, though, the birds were back.

“ARRRRRRGH!” Joe screamed.

“SQUAWK!” squawk’d the birds.

They were further ahead in Restaurant Row, now, but that was all Saffron knew. She looked around, searched for a familiar face, a sign she recognised, a passing guard patrol, anything. The ginger had bought them a little time, but only a little, and now the ponies behind them were catching up once again.

It was only then that she noticed the cracked-open shutters, the doors ajar in their frames, the winking of mage-lights in the darkness – the glinting of curious eyes. They were drawing attention now.

Ahead of them, a door cracked open and spilled firelight and – to Saffron’s horror and delight – the familiar form of Cardamom into the street. Her brow, hunched with concern, flew back up into her hairline when she recognised the mare flying up the street towards her. “Saffron? What is going on?”

“Carda!” Saffron shouted, “Get back inside! We’re being chased by criminals!”

“ARRRRRGH–”

“And also birds!”

“I don’t under–” Cardamom began, faltering as Saffron ran right past. She galloped after her. "Cariño, what do you mean, criminals? What is that book?" Then she glanced back. "And what a–oh. Wow, that's a lot of birds. Why are they attacking Joe?"

"ARRGH! NOT THE EARS! NOT THE EARS!"

The birds moved to the eyes.

"OKAY, ON SECOND THOUGHT, GO BACK TO THE EARS!"

"CAW!"

"Oi!" Carda arn back and batted at the cuckoo birds flapping around. "Leave him alone! Nasty birds! Shoo!"

The birds screeched at Carda, and were shocked as Carda shrieked back at them in return, with a voice of a mother that brooked no argument. The birds squawked and scattered into the night sky, leaving Joe standing there brushing his ragged, feather-flecked collar back into alignment. “I’mma need a – ow – tailor after this. Thank you, ma— Oof!”

He was cut off as Carda shoved him after Saffron, yelling, “Shoo! Get away! I will teach these pendejos a lesson for bothering my Saffron.” She marched off towards the oncoming voices. “Go!”

“Right! Thank you!” And Joe ran after Saffron, who had stopped in the street to watch the whole affair unfold. Along with, Saffron now realised, half of Restaurant Row, who were leaning over balcony rails and poking their heads out through open windows and doors.

The group of gangsters emerged, then, from the darkness, coats and hats flapping like the wings of vultures. Carda faltered in her warpath, stumbled, stopped.

Distantly, Saffron heard her speak: “I… Oh… I didn’t know it was…"

And the gangsters swarmed past her as if she wasn’t even there.

“SAFFRON!” Joe screamed, and it was both the sound of his voice and the feeling of him yanking the ledger from her flickering grip that jolted her back into motion.

The pair of them ran on. Ahead of them, they knew, lay Town Square.


Everyone saw them. Everyone was watching.

As the chase continued on down the length of Restaurant Row and spilled into Canterlot proper – ducking into abandoned alleyways, sprinting past homes and households, running through still-open restaurants while the late-shift looked on, eyes wide with recognition – the citizens awoke in their beds, listened at their doors, stumbled out into the night to watch them pass.

Many of them knew of Donut Joe, and even more of them knew of Saffron Masala. Many, curious, opened up their blinds to see who was following them. When they recognised the flock of gangsters in pitch-black suits in pursuit, many of them closed their binds and immediately began to mind their own business.

Some of them, even, recognised the ledger that bounced through the air in Pony Joe’s grip.

And so, as the chase headed towards Town Square, following behind them was a crowd of Canterlot citizens. Watching. Waiting.

The spider-web was closing in. Just how many had been caught?


“You know–” Huff “–I honestly preferred it–” Huff “–When the birds were–” Huff “–Attacking my face.” Huff.

Gasp “You–” Gasp “–You do?” Gasp “Why?”

“Because–” Huff “–I couldn’t–” Huff “–Hear them.”

The gangsters had caught up to them about a half-mile or so ago and had been slowly gaining on them ever since. Saffron was far from an athlete and Pony Joe made pastries for a living. Honestly, it had only ever been a matter of time.

Up ahead, Joe could see the silhouette of the statue of Princess Platinum that had stood in the centre of Canterlot’s city square for as long as anypony could remember. Joe wheezed and tried to think of where they could go from here.

The palace? Too far. They’d be caught before then.

His diner? The Tasty Treat? They’d probably had ponies waiting for them there before they’d even gotten to Ginger’s place.

Ginger. Joe shuddered. The guard barracks wasn’t too far. They might be able to help. But the memory of Ginger nervously helping Cuckoo to his feet, the way Mama Carda and the rest of the restaurant staff they’d encountered had bowed out as soon as they’d realised who was following them – all of it flooded through Pony Joe’s mind.

If he went to the guards, all Cuckoo Capone would have to do is point to the ledger and tell them exactly what had happened. And Joe knew in his gut that nopony else would have his back on this one. They were on their own.

“Joe?” Saffron asked, voice trembling from exhaustion. “Where do we go now, Joe?”

They were in the square, now; the statue loomed in the gloom, Princess Platinum’s face smiling obliviously into the night. Around them were four exits formed from two overlapping roads, heading from north to south and east to west, with blocks of houses squatting in the corners of the square.

“I don’t know, just keep running!” Joe circled the statue and headed north, towards the Castle. “I’ll think of some… thing…”

Three ponies stood on the road to the Castle, blocking their path. They wore wide-brimmed hats and matching suits, and they were stepping towards them.

“This way!” Saffron shouted, juking to the east. As if on cue, three more gangsters barreled out from a side-street in front of her, forming a living roadblock.

Over their shoulders, they could hear the rumbling wheels of an approaching carriage. They turned to look, but they already knew who they were going to see.

Cuckoo Capone’s carriage rolled up from the west, towed by two particularly burly gangsters. The wooden door was flung open with a bang, and Cuckoo Capone climbed out, head held high with a condescending sneer.

“Well. Well. Well.” Cuckoo Capone skulked towards them as he spoke, punctuating each syllable with the crack of his cane upon the paving stones of the square, “If it isn’t my favourite henchman and his mistake.” He looked between the two as he said this, his baleful glare landing on Saffron as he spat out the last word. “You’ve certainly taken us all on a wild goose chase, haven’t you?”

Joe levitated the ledger further into the air, face straining with the effort, as if it made any meaningful difference. “You’re not getting it back, you old fart. You’ve had me playing your game for long enough.” Saffron looked at Joe, then at Cuckoo, then back again, confusion seeping into her frightened face.

Cuckoo’s brow twitched at the insult, but he laughed it off. “Joe, my boy, you’ve always just been a pawn in a game of which you’re only just beginning to realise the scale. And, like any pawn, there’s only so many moves you can make.” Cuckoo sat down, resting his hooves on the top of his cane. “Think about it for a sec, with that big ol’ pastry-loving brain of yours. You’re cornered. There’s nothing you can do to me or the book that’ll meaningfully improve your circumstances. No-one’s going to call the guards, and if they did, they’d find themselves quite waylaid by all manner of distressed restaurant owners, whose places of employment have been so savagely vandalised by two thieving citizens.”

Saffron stared at Cuckoo. Joe looked past him, at the enclosing circle of gangsters. At the crowd of familiar and unfamiliar faces that had gathered at the edges of the square.

They had an audience. Many of them were ponies and creatures that Joe had known of, heard of, was even quite familiar with. Amongst them, trying to blend in and failing, was Ginger, their scales barely glinting in the moonlight.

“You cannot do that,” said Saffron, quietly. What should have been defiant was instead filled with a sea of sadness. “You should not push all these ponies around. It is not right. Mama Carda would not stand for this.”

In his peripheral vision, Joe noticed Cardamom watching, half-hidden behind an abandoned fruit stand. Something jolted in his memory.

He looked back at Cuckoo carefully.

Waited.

Cuckoo tilted his head and hummed. His eyes strayed towards the ledger in the corner of his vision. “Cardamom…? Oh. Yes, I remember her. She–” He stopped and barked out a laugh, rough-edged and raspy. “Oh, so she hasn’t told you, then? What am I saying, of course she hasn’t. Oh, that is just too rich for my blood.” And then he sneered at her. “And, believe me, I am incredibly rich.”

Then, suddenly, Joe’s voice: “Cardamom? That’s you, right? Over by the fruit stand?”

Everyone fell silent. Cuckoo glanced at Joe. He was peering out into the crowd in Cardamom’s direction, hoof over his brow so he could see. The ledger was open in his magical grip.

Cuckoo’s eyes narrowed. “What are you–”

“Yes. I am Cardamom, Joe.” Carda stepped forward out of the crowd, smiling hesitantly. “It’s nice to finally meet you.”

Cuckoo glanced between them. “Hey, you,” he said, “Get back. Where did you all come from?” He only now seemed to notice the crowd, so absorbed was he in enjoying his triumph.

“Cardamom.” Joe was reading the ledger now. “I remember you. You’ve been around longer than I have. I bought the diner about a decade ago, back when I still worked out and this suit still fit me.” His voice was picking up speed now. Pieces began to fit. “It took off, to say the least. I needed employees to handle all of the new customers. I put out ads, sent out forms, called in friends.” Joe looked up from the book and stared straight at Cardamom, his eyes clouded and gray. “And you know what? No-one came. They avoided my place like the plague. I’d always wondered why.”

Cuckoo Capone shouted, “That’s enough! Boys, grab ‘em!”

“But it didn’t matter!” Joe was shouting now. “Because then the customers stopped coming! I kept hearing rumours, awful rumours, about how the kitchen stank and I’d insult the customers and I stole my doughnuts from the local store – Oof!”

A gangster ran into him, shoving him forwards, but he kept moving, shouting all the while.

“And, did ya know, they started becoming true! Someone messed with the pipes, ponies would complain about my attitude, there were stolen doughnuts sitting on the porch in plain sight—” A scrum of gangsters had formed around Joe, fighting to tear the book from him. Joe, still shouting, tossed the wide-open book over to Saffron. “AND YOU KNOW WHO DID IT? IT WAS—”

“SILENCE!” Cuckoo Capone screamed. But it was Saffron who finished the sentence.

Carda?!” Saffron looked up from the ledger, eyes wide, and spun it around so the crowd could see the evidence for themselves. “It was you?

Everyone turned to look. Even Cuckoo couldn’t tear his eyes away.

Mama Carda, for her part, just wept. In the tense silence of the square, the crowd watched quiet tears trail down her cheeks. “Yes,” she said, “It was me. I said those things. You don’t appreciate, cariño, just how much my family and I needed those bits. And besides,” and she couldn’t help but smile, “You know I’ve always been a terrible gossip.”

The crowd gasped, as if they were watching a pantomime. A babble of voices struck up, some whispering, some shouting, but none of them could drown out Cardamom’s sudden cry. “But I would never sabotage another pony’s livelihood, not even for a princess’s ransom! It must have been those vandals and hoodlums we all keep hearing about!”

“Nope!” Joe piped up. He was tussling with the gangsters just enough to keep shouting. “Wanna know – oof – who’d sabotage – hurk – a pony’s livelihood?” More sounds of struggling.

“The serpent!” Saffron cried, flipping through the ledger to the correct page, even as a group of gangsters chased after her. “I mean, dragon! I mean, Ginger!

The crowd went from unsettled to ballistic at the mention of Ginger’s name, and began to round on them angrily. Ginger largely ignored them and just stared straight at Joe. Their expression seemed to be a complex mix of indignance, fear, and relief.

“Yeah,” Ginger said, eventually. What was a normal speaking voice for them and their draconic voice could still easily be heard over the clamour of voices around them. “I did it. Cuckoo threatened to get my family involved, and it’s better for everyone that he hadn’t – they aren’t exactly followers of Dragonlord Ember’s lead, I’ll tell you that much. I hadn’t known Joe, then. I’m sorry. It wasn’t personal.”

Ginger paused. Scratched at the corner of their eye, where the tear ducts would be on a smaller, weaker, far less terrifying creature.

“It is now, though,” they added.

“Wait!” came a voice from the crowd. A stallion pushed forward, clutching a battered chef’s hat to their breast. “My first restaurant, it had burned down in a fire some years back. Ponies tell me that the building had been cursed.” And then he threw his hat to the ground and jabbed a hoof at Ginger, face twisted up with rage. “Was it you? If you could sabotage one restaurant, who’s to say you wouldn’t just burn down another?!”

“Stop,” came another voice. This time, to everyone’s surprise, it was one of the gangsters who’d stepped out from the gathering crowd. They took off their hat, revealing the hard eyes and sharp jaw of a pegasus mare. Her frame was athletic and intense, but her eyes were soft with emotion.

“I… Well, see. That wasn’t the dragon.” She rubbed at her face and sighed. “It was me. I hadn’t been in a good place then. I’d just been fired. ” She glanced around at the faces in the crowd, briefly. Then she grunted, gestured with her chin towards the group of gangsters that had finally subdued Joe. “They offered me a job at Cuckoo’s. New kitchen, more bits, new life. Just needed to do something for them first.”

Suddenly, she kicked out her back leg at a stone on the ground. It shattered with a loud CRACK. “Was only ever good with stormclouds, see.”

The gathered ponies had been quiet, until then. But now that one of the gangsters had confessed, it was as if a weight had been lifted from the crowd, and one after one they stepped forward.

One of them was a zebra. He’d poisoned the food, he said. His family restaurant had been failing. He’d have done anything to put a smile on their faces. So a friend of a friend introduced them to Cuckoo, told him they could have as many customers as they needed if he’d take a specific job listing and do Cuckoo a little favour while they were there. See, someone wasn’t towing the party line, and a little less competition never hurt anypony…

The voices spread. More ponies stepped forward. Some of them willingly, others only after the dots had been connected before their very eyes. Cuckoo had the book in his hooves now, was cradling it like a lost child, but by this point even his own gang members seemed uncertain.

Restaurant Row had been played against itself. Ponies turned against ponies, colleagues turned against colleagues. And at the centre of the web, the pony who’d been playing them all had been–

“This means nothing,” Cuckoo Capone shouted over the din, “Do you know who I am?! I’m Cuckoo Capone! I RUN THIS TOWN AND NOPONY CAN–”

But that was far as he got. The web had collapsed, and the crowd closed in around him.

Joe, beaten and exhausted, looked up as a hoof jabbed him in the side. He turned. It was Saffron. She was offering him her hoof.

He took it, and the two of them left Cuckoo to the crowd.


It took Joe a distressingly long time to realise they were heading towards the Tasty Treat. It felt as if he’d been awake for days, rather than…

Wait. Joe glanced up at the sky, at the position of Luna’s moon. What time had he gotten up this morning…?

Huh. So, almost a day. That certainly explained things – the time he’d spent running for his life, tussling with angry stallions, and getting pecked by Cuckoo’s cuckoos probably explained the rest.

Celestia, but he was tired.

“Joe?” Saffron grunted. She was pressed up against his side, keeping him steady.

“Mmm?” Joe mmm’d. Saffron was very warm, he realised, in the chill of the night air.

“Please do not fall asleep. You are very heavy.”

“Mmm.” Saffron smelled nice, too. Something sweet and exotic – sugar? Spice? What was that one word?

Ah. He smiled. Of course. Saffron. Yes. Wonderful stuff.

Wonderful pony.

There was a long pause as the pair of them stumbled down the street towards the Tasty Treat. “Joe,” said Saffron, voice quavering, “I know you are tired, but I dearly wish to speak to you about once we get home.”

Joe worked through the sentence in his head. He hummed. “’Once we get home’?” he repeated. And then he stopped, and looked down at Saffron.

He took in her eyes, bright with exhaustion and concern. Took in her mane, frayed at the edges, but perhaps even more beautiful in the starlight than it had been during the day. Took in how, even now that he’d found his footing, she kept a supportive hoof on his shoulder. He reached up and pressed his own against it.

The realisation had hit. He was free. Free? He must be, right? There was no way Cuckoo could walk the streets after this. They’d done it.

They were free. They were free.

And that was the exact moment when Joe realised that he loved her.

“Well,” Joe said, a smile pulling at his lips, “Why wait? I’d love to talk!” And he laughed, the waning hysteria still audible in his voice, and he felt relieved, like an enormous weight had been lifted from his shoulders. “Let’s talk! What do you wanna talk about?”

Silence. Joe watched Saffron’s expression shift from surprise, to concern, to sadness, and, finally, to resolution. Gently — but insistently — she tugged her hoof from underneath Joe’s and slipped it into the satchel at her side, and had it always been bulging out like that? What was she carrying? Joe’s smile withered on his lips.

Then Saffron pulled out the ledger, and Joe realised that that hadn’t been concern in her eyes. It’d been something a lot more wet and messy.

“Oh.” The smile died. “You kept that.” Pause. “Of course you did.”

That was the exact moment when Joe realised that he was the worst pony in the world.

“Why, Joe?” Saffron asked, and she flipped the book open in her magic, right to the end, where the ink was still fresh. His own name stared back at him, damned by the date and details. “I do not understand.”

“It wasn’t me! It–” Joe slapped a hoof over his stupid mouth and groaned. “No.” He took a deep breath. “I mean, I did do it. I wrecked your restaurant. But I was in the exact same position as everyone back there.” He nodded towards the square. “It was no different than what Ginger and Cardamom did to mine.”

But Saffron was shaking her head, looked at him almost pityingly – as if he was being a stupid kid. “That is not what I meant, Joe. You know that,” she insisted. “But you lied to me. Why did you not tell me you did it?” Her eyes widened with realistion. “Why did you not come to me, in fact, before the occasion?”

Joe looked at her, confused. “…What?”

“All you had to do was come and tell me what you needed to do to maintain your cover!”

Joe listened. Stopped. Processed the words. Tried not to collapse from the sheer force of the emotion that jolted through his system when he realised what was going on.

This is going to end very poorly, isn’t it Joe? Con Mane quipped in his head.

You don’t know the half of it, Donut Joe sighed in reply.

Saffron didn’t seem to notice that anything was amiss. She tapped her chin thoughtfully, letting her train of thought bounce around her head as she spoke. “And then I could have put all of my valuables someplace safe and helped you take apart the house. And then Father wouldn’t be furious when he gets back from Po—”

“SAFFRON!” came a voice louder than the rolling thunder on a distant plain. “SOMEPONY HAS DESTROYED THE TASTY TREAT!” An enormous, barrel-chested form charged through the darkness towards them. His eyes were red with angry tears, and the ground quaked with his passing.

“Father!” cried Saffron.

Uh oh, thought Pony Joe.


Saffron Masala had seen Coriander Cumin cry exactly twice in the entirety of her lifetime. And ever since then, the only pony whose shoulder she could cry on has been exactly, and exclusively, his.

So when, after over 36 hours of separation, they were finally reunited, she was only too happy to let him cry on hers.

“Shh, Father, it’s okay, don’t worry…” she soothed, rubbing his enormous back. “Didn’t you see the wonderful job we did in repairing it?” And then she glared at Joe, who looked like a rabbit caught between a rock and a hard place. (Was that the expression…?)

In any case, her intent was clear; he stepped back to give them some space, and Saffron returned to soothing her tearful father.

“Oh, of course I did!” Coriander whined, rubbing at his eyes with a stubby foreleg, “It was wonderful work! But did you not think your own Father would notice? The vases you made when you were a foal, the pictures from home, and, oh, the cushions! Torn!

“I know,” said Saffron, trying to maintain an even tone. “But they are only things, Father. They can be replaced. The memories will endure.”

“I’ll find them,” said Coriander. He raised his head, and his red eyes had darkened into twin pits of flaming coals. “I’ll find the ones who did this. There were ponies heading towards the city square earlier — they had been the ones who told me what had happened to the poor Tasty Treat.” Coriander gently pushed Saffron in the direction of the restaurant, and then turned back towards the way they had came. “I am sure one of them can tell me who is respon—”

“Father, no!” Saffron ran in front of him and barred his way. “It wasn’t them, we already know that. Joe did it.”

“Wait, wha—”

Coriander Cumin’s head spun towards Joe, and — without breaking his stride — started marching towards him.

“I will break him,” he said, and Joe believed it.

“Whoa, hey, no, okay, I didn’t—” Joe was backing away, now. “I mean I did but I didn’t actually— Saffron please help meeee—”

“Daddy, stop!”

And Daddy stopped.

Joe, who had been pressed up against the wall, stared up at Coriander’s looming form — which was terrifying, considering that Joe was at least a head taller than him — and tried not to breathe too hard and upset him. Eventually, slowly, he began to turn around. Joe let out a breath.

And immediately sucked it back in again when Coriander shouted, “WE WILL HAVE A TALK,” right into Joe’s face, and then he turned around to finally face his daughter.

Joe tried not to cry.

“Thank you, Father,” said Saffron, once he was a safe distance from poor Joe. “Joe was the one to destroy the Tasty Treat, it is true—” And this time she had to physically hold Coriander back, “—but none of this is his fault! A very nasty pony named Cuckoo Capone told him to do it!”

The name gave Coriander pause. “Cuckoo Capone?” He grunted. “I know this stallion. He came to me some weeks ago, behaved like a kindly old gentleman. He said he wished to give me things: a job, a house. A wife. As if he were a king, and I were still a peasant.” He spat. “He offered me gold. I offered to knock out his fillings and take them.”

Joe saw a chance here. He pushed himself to his hooves and offered Coriander a weak smile. “Um. Well, that explains why he waited for you to get out of town, then...”

“Sit down and shut up.”

“Yes, sir.” Joe got back on the ground.

Saffron hugged her father. “You are a very brave stallion, Father.” She sighed, and buried her face in Coriander’s chest. “And I’m sorry that I failed you. And just after you decided I was old enough to look after myself.”

Joe perked up at that. The way Saffron’s voice warbled as she spoke stirred something in him. This wasn’t right. This wasn’t fair.

“Are you joking?” The two of them turned to look at Joe, who was staring at Saffron, incredulous. “You threw a bag of ginger at a pensioner’s head! You trespassed onto a pensioner’s property! You stole a book from between a pensioner’s sleeping, unresisting arms!” he cried. “And you did all that while looking after yourself and looking after me. You’re basically a hero!”

“I thought I told you to shut up.”

“Right, yes.”

“You pastry-peddling stallion.”

“Yes, sorry.”

“Father, please stop telling Joe to shut up.” Saffron stepped over to a very sheepish-looking Joe and pulled him onto all-fours. “He means well. And he is a superspy!”

Coriander said, “He is what?” at the precise second that Joe said, “Saffron, stop.” They looked at one another, then stared at Saffron.

Saffron looked between them, completely lost. “Joe… is a superspy?” she repeated, slower this time.

Even as she said it, Joe could see the lie unravelling. He could also see the open ledger stutter towards the ground as Saffron’s magic flickered, and reached out for it.

Coriander, however, was faster. “Whoa, girl, let me hold that for you.” A dull-yellow glow batted Joe’s weakened magic aside and pulled the book towards Cumin, who trotted over to Saffron’s side. “Now, I am afraid I must have misheard you, daughter dearest. What did you say Joe was?”

“…A superspy,” Saffron said. The conviction had almost entirely vanished from her tone by this point, and she was staring at him. “Just like those books and pictures we saw.”

“Hmm. I see.” Coriander rubbed his hairy chin with a hoof, and stared at the open pages of Cuckoo’s ledger. The same pages, Joe realised, that had his name printed on it. “And what is this book that you’ve been carrying, my dear daughter?”

Saffron angled her expression towards the book, but continued to stare at the Joe from the corners of her eyes. As if she were trying to stare a hole right through him. “It is Cuckoo Capone’s diary. All the ponies – ah, creatures – who had done his dirty work for him are written in it.”

Coriander flipped through the book. He read over each page for a few long seconds before he turned them. “There are many names,” Coriander observed gravely.

Saffron took her eyes off of Joe so she could see what her father was looking at. “On the last page, you can see Joe’s name written there. See?” Her voice grew more certain as she was explaining. Her father hummed in acknowledgement when she pointed to the page in question. “And he did that in order to maintain his cover as a superspy, because it is important that he is not discov—”

“Please stop,” Joe said, and Saffron stopped. “I know what you’re trying to do, Saffron, and I appreciate it, but you shouldn’t try to defend me like this.” He sighed and rubbed at his tired eyes with the matted fur on his dirty foreleg. “I just… Yeah. I’m not a superspy. I just sell donuts and trash restaurants and lie about stuff. Time-honoured tradition.”

He looked up at them.

Coriander looked like he was ready to break him.

Saffron looked heartbroken.

“I was not saying that to defend you, Joe,” said Saffron. She suddenly seemed a few years younger than she had before, and Joe realised that the make-up she’d been wearing was running down her cheeks. “I just did not want to believe that you would lie to me about that.” She wiped her face. “I may not be very smart but at least I’m not…” And then she fell silent.

“I’m sorry,” Joe said, and this time he could feel the truth in his words, and it was a blessed relief. “I am so, so sorry, Saffron. I’d never meant to hurt you like this. I just wanted to…” And then he stopped, and remembered what Ginger had said.

It wasn’t personal.

“Your name shows up in this ledger more than once, pastry-peddler,” Coriander said, almost conversationally, as he stepped towards him, “Many times, in fact. You have been doing this for a long time.”

“I was scared,” said Joe, and this time he didn’t back away. “I had no-one. If I hadn’t taken the offer, I’d have nothing.”

“And so, instead you became a common criminal,” said Coriander, as if it was the simplest thing in the world.

“I… Yeah.” Joe didn’t have any response to that. “Yeah, I guess I did.”

“What was the real reason that you wanted this ledger so badly, pastry-peddler?” Coriander held up the enormous ledger with one hoof. “My daughter seemed to believe that you had wanted to unravel all of this.”

Joe raised a hoof. “I–”

“But it was never about that, was it?” Coriander opened the book and riffled the pages, showing off over a decade of tiny names and dates and deeds. “You only desired the evidence. So badly that you would suck my lonely, naive, BELOVED daughter into your ridiculous scheme!” Coriander dropped the ledger and marched towards him, huffing hot air through his nostrils like an angry minotaur.

“That’s not true!” Joe shouted, “I just wanted to help, I just wanted to—”

You are a lying SERPENT!” Coriander grabbed Joe by his tattered collar, all but tearing it in half. “You lied to us just so you could try to cover your trail! It was never about HELPING HER, WAS IT?!”

Anger flashed white hot in Joe’s gut like the surface of the Sun and he snapped. “IT WAS ONLY EVER ABOUT HELPING HER!”

THEN WHY DID YOU INVOLVE HER? WHAT IF SHE’D GOTTEN HURT?!”

The two stallions were standing so close that Joe could feel Coriander’s hot breath on his face, shaking with emotion.

Coriander glared at Joe. Joe didn’t care anymore. He went slack in the older stallion’s grip, defeated.

Eventually, he began to speak again, voice trembling like a leaf. “I just wanted to help her y’know.” He sniffed. “She came into the diner and I realised that I’d been there, y’know, not too long ago. And I wasn’t happy. I wasn’t happy about anything. When it was just me doing stuff for the boss– for Cuckoo, it was like. Y’know. Easier not to think about it. Easier not to care.”

Coriander let go of him.

Joe slumped to the ground like a sack of flour. He didn’t try to stand up. He just kept on going. “You don’t just start out by wrecking ponies’ property. It’s a creeping thing. Starts off small. Erosion. Wears you down until you stop resisting it, and to be honest, I’m not sure I was even resisting it that much in the first place.”

He got back to his hooves, swayed for a moment, and avoided Coriander’s gaze while Saffron avoided his. “But I cared. I really did. And I’d never have let Saffron get hurt, Mr Cumin.” Only then did Joe meet his eyes.

Coriander looked at him like one would look at a piece of dirt. He tilted his head, considering. “I am a merciful stallion,” he said eventually. “My daughter is unharmed. You helped repair my restaurant. Intentionally or not, you helped to bring this Cuckoo Capone to justice. You have repaid your karmic debt, as it were. But, on a personal note…”

And then Saffron’s father leaned in close, and in a voice so quiet that Joe would hear it only in his nightmares, he muttered: “If you ever speak to my daughter again, I swear upon all the gods that I will destroy you like you destroyed our restaurant.”

Joe believed him.

“Now. Go home before you catch a cold.” As he said this, Coriander clutched Saffron to his side. He looked over her with concern. She just stared at nothing in particular, lost in her thoughts. “And we shall do the same.”

Joe turned and began to walk back home. Behind him, he heard two sets of hooves head off in the other direction. A cold wind blew, and he shivered, and realised only then that the suit he was wearing had been all but destroyed by the events of that very, very long day. Coriander hadn’t been kidding about the pneumonia, apparently.

Something stuck in his throat. No, this wasn’t right.

It hadn’t been personal.

It was now, though.

Joe spun on his heels and shouted, “Hey!”

Coriander and Saffron looked back over their shoulders at him.

“You were wrong,” said Joe. “I didn’t care what happened to me. I just wanted the book to stop Cuckoo. And I’d have risked everything for that even if Saffron hadn’t come too.” And then, despite everything, Joe smiled. “And I’d have failed. Because Saffron is braver than anyone I’ve ever met, and I never could have stopped him without her.”

And, for once, Joe was telling the absolute truth. And it was a blessed, blessed relief.