The Sun was low in the cloudless sky when the unicorn walked into the restaurant. She had a pink coat and violet mane, wore a yellow-orange saddle and skirt, and her cutie mark was three brilliant-cut diamonds. Bracelets and brooches orbited her head, catching the light and shimmering faintly. She strolled serenely towards me, not even noticing her semiprecious satellites. That would've been odd for any other pony, even here in Ponyville, but this was –
“Sparkler!” I said, striding forward to clasp her hooves in my own. “Ponyville’s finest jeweler-in-training. Will you and your lovely date be joining us this evening?”
She glanced anxiously at the clock on the wall before schooling her expression into a polite smile. “Yeah, Roseluck will be late today.”
I sensed that she wasn't in the mood to stand around and chat, so I led her over to a table in the back corner. Nopony else was here yet, so there was no reason for Sparkler to not take a better-lit table near the front – but this was her regular table, and it had been for years, so she sat without complaint in one of the two chairs. All of our tables seated two; they were dinky little things. And speaking of little things...
“I trust your sister is well?” I asked.
Sparkler toyed with one of the trinkets around her head distractedly, spinning it with her magic. “Oh, Dinky’s fine.”
“I'm glad to hear it,” I said. I waited for Sparkler to continue the conversation, but the only sounds in the restaurant were the tick-tock of the clock and the click-clack as Sparkler rolled the pendant back and forth across the table.
Exactly twenty-three tick-tocks later, it was apparent that Sparkler didn’t feel like talking, so I walked away. I knew from long experience that Sparkler wouldn’t order anything until Roseluck arrived, and I also knew that they ordered the same courses every time, so there was no point to waiting around.
“Wait!” Sparkler cried.
“Can you... give me some advice?” She kept idly spinning the piece of jewelry, click-clack click-clack, but the movement had become hesitant and pensive.
I walked back. “Of course. What’s the matter?”
“I... I’ve been wondering. I’ve been thinking of doing something... something big. Something that’d change everything, you know?”
I didn’t, and I said so.
“A decision that’d change my entire life. Change it for the better if it works out, and for the worse if it doesn’t. And I wanna know – is that a risk worth taking?”
I thought about it, tick-tock tick-tock, and then I shrugged. “At the risk of sounding trite, it’s better to regret the things you have done than the things you haven’t done, so I’d advise you to take that risk.” I paused. “Unless it’s something stupid. If I just encouraged you to drop your apprenticeship with Lemony Gem and move to Las Pegasus, Derpy would murder me in cold blood when she found out.”
She giggled. “No, it’s nothing like that.”
I smiled back, glad to have lightened her mood. “In that case, I hope that it goes well, whatever it is.”
“Thanks,” she said, and the jewelry floating around her descended into her saddlebags.
The door opened, and Sparkler looked up hopefully, but it wasn’t Roseluck. Instead, four mares walked in: an earth pony, two pegasi, and a unicorn.
I trotted over to greet them. “Good evening, ladies. Whose name was the reservation made under?”
I noticed that the unicorn looked on the verge of a panic attack, and I hastened to add: “I kid, I kid. There's no need to reserve a table to eat here.”
“That wasn’t very nice of you, my little pony,” the earth pony said, and I gulped nervously. Little was right – she was over a head taller than me and was built like a pro hoofball player. Then again, her frown was tinged with amusement, as if she was fighting back laughter, and the other three ponies were openly laughing – even the unicorn chuckled at herself – so I wasn’t too worried.
Tick-tock went the clock.
“Shall I lead you to your tables?” I offered. The four ponies nodded, and I led them to two tables by the window. The earth pony sat with one of the pegasi, and the unicorn sat with the other.
I addressed the earth pony. “So, Miss...”
“Sunshine,” she said. Fittingly, her coat was white, her mane and tail were yellow, and her cutie mark was a stylized sunbeam.
“Alright, Miss Sunshine, what would you like for your first course?”
Sunshine‘s gaze swept over her menu, and she said, “A grilled eggplant panzanella for me, please.”
I nodded and turned to the mare sitting at the other side of the table. She was varying shades of blue and black, and her cutie mark was the same as Sunshine’s, but in grey and silver. She ordered a pumpkin crumble, and declined to introduce herself.
My gaze moved to the other pegasus, who had a pink coat and a yellow-and-purple-streaked mane that went down to her hooves. “I’m Candy Hearts,” she said, pointing to her cutie mark, which was indeed one of those little chalky Hearts and Hooves Day candies. “And I’ll have a chickpea salad with lemon vinaigrette. But could you replace the tomatoes in the salad with pickles? And add some paprika?”
I stared at her in disbelief, and so did the unicorn. The pegasus patiently waited for my response as the clock ticked and tocked away, and it occurred to me that waiting was my job, not hers, so I nodded wordlessly and turned to the unicorn.
The unicorn was purple all over. Mane, coat, tail – even her cutie mark was a purple pentacle. She introduced herself as Dawn Dazzle, and after agonizing for minutes over what to order, eventually decided on the same meal as Sunshine.
I coughed gently to get the attention of all four mares, and said, “Your first courses will be ready within an hour.”
I walked to the kitchen to deliver the orders to the chef.
A half-hour later, Roseluck had arrived, and was already sitting with Sparkler, chatting affectionately. As I approached with a plate-laden serving cart, Sparkler laughed at something Roseluck said, and reached over to ruffle her ruby-red mane. I rapped my hoof on the trolley to announce my presence, and laid their meals – stuffed eggplant with lentils and millet – on the table.
“Would you like some drinks, ladies?” I asked. It was a rhetorical question; they always ordered champagne.
Roseluck met my gaze with her jade-green eyes, and said the next lines of that familiar, weekly performance. “Yeah, two glasses –”
“Actually, Rosy,” Sparkler interjected, “I’m thinking we should get two bottles of champagne.”
Roseluck blinked, as did I. Sparkler had gone off-script.
“But of course,” I said. “Two bottles. Anything else out of the ordinary?”
Sparkler smiled enigmatically, but said nothing.
Tick-tock went the clock.
Roseluck shot her a curious glance, and then turned to me. “No, nothing else.”
I nodded and took my leave of the couple.
I pushed the serving cart to the other four mares – or at least, there used to be four. Only Dawn and Candy were sitting at the table, both gazing out the window at the setting sun. The light covered their coats in streaks of red and orange, like autumn leaves dappling the forest floor. A wedding band gleamed in Candy's wing – tied to a feather, in the pegasus tradition.
Dawn noticed my approach, and turned to meet my inquiring glance. “Oh, you want to know where, uh, Sunshine and her sister went? They went to the...” She trailed off.
“Little fillies’ room. To, ah, powder their noses,” Candy said.
I shrugged, and placed their meals on the table. “Will they be back soon?”
Dawn stared out at twilight while Candy crunched away at her pickles.
“Don’t worry,” said Dawn, a bit absent-mindedly. “They’ll be back soon. There’s just something they’ve got to take care of.”
“In that case, I’ll wait until then to get all of your orders for your main courses at once. Would you like some drinks?”
“Cider,” said Dawn. “From Sweet Apple Acres, if possible.”
“Just water for me, please,” said Candy, “but I’d bet Sunshine and, er, Moonshine will want a few bottles of beer when they get back.”
“With a name like Moonshine, I’d have expected kegs,” I said, deadpan.
Candy let out a startled chuckle, Dawn kept staring out the window, and I left to pick up the drinks.
I returned to Sparkler and Roseluck a quarter-hour later, my serving cart full of bottles of social lubricant. They were deep in conversation, so I felt it prudent to leave the bottles on their table and continue on my path.
I found Candy and Dawn still gazing out the window. This time, the skies were inky-black and dotted with stars, and the mares were debating about social responsibility. The odd part wasn’t the topic they had chosen – after all, I’d seen my fair share of philosophical drunks – no, the odd part was that they had chosen it while still sober.
“Don’t you think,” Candy said, “that if I can see that two ponies are going to hurt themselves, I’m obliged to stop them?”
“You can’t see the future; nothing’s set in stone.”
“That’s just semantics. When I see ponies making decisions that they’ll almost certainly regret, or that will almost certainly hurt themselves –”
“But it’s their decision, and I don’t think anypony else should involve themselves in that decision unless they’re asked to,” Dawn replied. She glanced up as I placed bottles of cider and water on their table, and then resumed her argument. “They’re responsible adults, and they have the right to make their own mistakes and learn from them, don’t you think? If you stop ponies from falling, how will they ever learn to get back up?”
“Let’s get somepony else’s opinion on this.” Candy looked up at me. “What do you think?”
I turned to look behind me, in case she was addressing the other two mares in their party of four, and I realised why they were on this topic. Sunshine and Moonshine had somehow already pilfered the beer from my cart, probably while I was serving Sparkler and Roseluck, and were racing to the bottom of their bottles.
“Well,” I said carefully, “I don't believe that you should stop ponies from doing things that you think they’ll regret later. By doing them, they might be better off in the long run. For example, even though I'm certain that Moonshine will pass out halfway through her second bottle, at least she’ll be able to look back on it as a fond memory and bonding experience –”
“What?” Dawn asked. She paused. “Oh, right, yes, those two and their beer.”
Candy, who seemed to have lost interest in the conversation, stared pensively off into the distance – no, not into the distance. She was watching Sparkler and Roseluck.
For a moment the only sounds were the tick-tock of the clock and the frantic chugging at the table behind me.
None of the four mares looked interested in ordering another course, so I returned to the kitchen.
I came back out a half-hour later and trotted to the window. The moon shone down on Moonshine, who was snoring loudly while sprawled on top of her table. Sunshine, meanwhile, had toppled off her chair and was snoozing underneath that table.
I turned to Candy and Dawn, who were chatting amiably. “You’ll be taking these two with you when you leave?” I asked.
Dawn nodded. “Yes. In fact, we might as well just leave right now.”
Candy reached over to Sunshine’s saddlebags, rummaged around inside them, and produced several hooffulls of bits, which Dawn levitated onto the table. I could tell just by looking that they had left a hefty tip – nearly double the actual cost of their meals.
“Will you need help carrying them” – I gestured with a hoof to Sunshine and Moonshine – “out of the restaurant?”
Dawn smiled with the easy self-confidence that comes with being buzzed. “No, we’ll be fine.” Her horn glowed, and both comatose ponies lifted into the air, surrounded by a crimson aura.
“Dawn, are you sure you can carry them? I’ll help, if you want –”
“What was it that you said earlier? Something about not letting ponies make choices that’ll obviously get them hurt? Well, I know that if you try to lift a fully-grown pony, you’re definitely going to hurt yourself, especially in your... current physical condition.”
Candy laughed, but something about the laugh seemed panicked. “What are you trying to say, Dawn?”
Tick-tock went the clock.
“Oh, nothing,” Dawn said, smirking. “You just look tired.”
Dawn led the way out of the restaurant, the bodies of the two unconscious mares trailing behind her. Candy followed them to the door, and shot one last look back over her shoulder at Sparkler and Roseluck, who were in the midst of a heated discussion.
I thought back to Candy’s argument with Dawn, and I wondered which mare had won.
Candy walked out into the Ponyville night, door gently swinging closed behind her, and as I made my way to the kitchen, collecting their bits on my way, I wondered if either mare had won at all.
A half-hour later, I emerged from the kitchen, wheeling my serving cart ahead of me. Only two plates were on it – tonight was the slowest night we’d had in months.
I pulled up to the table in the back corner. Neither mare looked sociable. Sparkler was staring off into the middle distance, jaw clenched. Roseluck’s head was buried in her forelegs. A half-empty bottle of champagne sat between them. The clock ticked and tocked, and something in Roseluck’s hooves went click-clack.
Upset diners usually just wanted to eat and leave, with a minimum of unnecessary social interaction, so I decided to dispense with the banter as I gently placed both plates on the table. “Your cauliflower casseroles, ladies. I trust they are both to your liking?”
“Oh, I don’t think Roseluck will like it,” Sparkler said, her voice cold and tired. “She’ll probably be scared of committing to it. Maybe she’ll say that we're not ready to choose our main courses yet –”
Roseluck looked up, her green eyes bloodshot and as red as her mane. “Stop it! Just – just stop it, okay?” Her voice was ragged with tears.
Sparkler scowled, and the scowl grew like a bramble, spiked and ugly, twisting her features out of shape, and I realized that if I didn’t interrupt she’d say something she’d regret, and –
“Okay, Roseluck. I’ll stop. It’s done. It’s over.” She got up and shoved past me.
Roseluck looked up, shocked, and let out something not quite like a strangled gasp and not quite like a sob.
Sparkler slammed the door on her way out.
Roseluck collapsed, crumpling back onto the table like a puppet whose strings had been cut. I hesitated, and then placed a comforting hoof on her shoulders. She didn’t cry; I think she was too burnt out for that.
The only sounds were the tick-tock of the clock and the click-clack as Roseluck rolled something on the table. I looked at it, and saw that it was the same pendant that Sparkler had been rolling when she first arrived. I looked even closer, and saw that it was, in fact, a ring on a chain. Both were made of gold. The chain gleamed with bits of jade and amethyst, and the ring was inlaid with diamonds and rubies. The gemstones sparkled dully in the restaurant’s dim lighting.
I stared at the ring as it rolled, and I made a decision. “You aren’t paying for this meal.”
Sniffling, Roseluck looked up at me. “What?”
“I'll cover the bill for you tonight.”
She stared up at me blankly. Her mouth worked for a few seconds, but all she got out was: “Thank you.”
I expected to feel warm inside, like I had done something good that day, but for some reason I just felt weary. The ring kept rolling, and the clock kept ticking.
The bottle of champagne was still on the table. I picked it up, placed it on the cart, and wheeled it back to the kitchen. Then I poured myself a glass.