"Good evening, ma'am," greeted the maitre d'. "Would you like a table?"
Pinkie Pie inclined her head slightly at the strange suggestion. "No thank you," she replied. "They don't match the rest of my furniture."
Her host stared, unamused, at the pink pony. "Then how can I help you today?"
"Reservation for two," said Pinkie, smiling broadly. "Name of Markie Sparks."
The maitre d' ran a hoof down an open page in her ledger until she came to a matching line. Putting the book away, she picked up two menus and led Pinkie Pie to a small unoccupied table next to the wall. At Pinkie's request, she brought a pitcher of water and a glass.
Pinkie half-interestedly skimmed the menu, thinking about the pony she was waiting for. It had been nearly two years since she had last seen Sparks. He had been an enthusiastic young reporter then, one of the better ones. Pinkie thought that he could have been a successful one, too, if it hadn't been for...
Pinkie shook her head sharply. No need to linger on that now. If he wanted to meet her, then hopefully all that was behind them. Sparks' letter had asked to see her here in Hoofington, far north of Ponyville. The travel had taken more than a week and Pinkie had refused any company on the journey, but she hoped it would be worth it in the end.
The maitre d' returned to pull out the chair across from Pinkie Pie and a familiar figure seated herself in it.
"Hello Pinkie," said Gilda.
Pinkie Pie, easily excited, seemed overjoyed at the sight of the griffon. "Hi Gilda! Fancy meeting you here! I haven't seen you in - oh - it must be over a year. How have you been?"
"I've been good, Pinkie. And you?"
"Oh, I've been great. I'm meeting an old friend here. I sure hope he gets here soon. I'd love for you to meet him and I'm sure he'd like to meet you!"
Gilda picked up her own menu. "If you mean Sparks, I'm afraid he won't be coming this evening. He's occupied at the moment."
"Don't look so glum," said Gilda, smiling. "I wanted to have a chat with you and this seemed like such a good opportunity. Like you say, it's been over a year and we have so much to talk about, you and me. You know: how's the gang; did you meet anybody new; are you staying in touch with your family; have you stabbed anyone in the back recently?"
Pinkie smiled back. "No, I haven't." She pondered for a moment and continued. "Unless you count that time Spike tried to teach me darts. But that was an accident."
Still browsing her menu, Gilda waved a talon dismissively at Pinkie. "Uh-huh. Fascinating. But hey, I wanted to talk about something else. You know - the party you threw for me. The one where you set me up to make a fool of myself and take out my distaste for you on my friend - my only friend - Rainbow Dash; the one that split the two of us up for good."
Pinkie opened her mouth to speak, but a glare from Gilda warned her to close it again.
"Don't you dare deny it, Pinkie Pie," said Gilda. "It had your hoofprints all over it and I had a long, long time to think about every little detail.
"Anyway, as I was saying, Dash probably told you that I hate losing, but what could I do? There was no point in just kicking the stuffing out of you. You beat me at a game I just couldn't play. You humiliated me utterly and worst of all, you made it my own fault. That was cruelty that I simply couldn't compete with."
A waiter arrived at the table to take their orders.
Gilda handed back her menu. "I'll have a pumpkin pastina and my friend here will have the spicy bean salad. That's your favourite, right Pinkie?"
Pinkie nodded dumbly in response.
"And the house white wine, please," finished Gilda.
The waiter brought a basket of bread to the table before returning to the kitchens. Gilda tore hungrily into some poppy seed loaf before continuing her story.
"So I left Ponyville and went back home to Gryfada. I'm not fond of the place, but I needed some time to think. I wanted to get back at you on the same terms but I had to admit I just didn't have the intellect. So I buried myself in books, hoping one of them would inspire me. I spent weeks at a time in the library, devouring every book I could find on conflict, sociology, philosophy, ethics, you name it. I discovered a love for those books that I never knew I had. I read them and re-read them; I even carry one or two with me just in case I get a few minutes alone to read."
Gilda put a heavy tome on the table. The title was Animal Souls - Essays on Moral Interfaces.
"And after everything I learned from those books, I was forced to come to an upsetting conclusion. You know what it was?"
Gilda leaned over the table and lowered her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. "You were right."
Leaning back from the griffon's razor-sharp beak, Pinkie raised an eyebrow at the admission. "I was?"
Gilda settled back in her chair and sighed loudly. "Yeah. I honestly was a horrible person back then. I was a bully, a thief and a cheat. I really didn't deserve to be Rainbow Dash's friend. I didn't deserve to be anybody's friend. Being forced to admit that was one of the best things that ever happened to me."
"So, um," Pinkie hesitated. "Then we're square?"
"Oh, no - no we're not, Pinkie. You see, the best thing that ever happened to me was meeting Rainbow Dash. I looked up to her and competing with her was my biggest drive. I loved her. And now all I can remember is the look she gave me that night. She looked betrayed, disappointed, even disgusted at me."
Dinner was served with a flourish from the waiter. Gilda tasted the wine and found it suitable. She used a fork to pick at her meal while Pinkie nibbled leaves from her own bowl.
"So I was just petty enough to decide that I still wanted to hurt you. Not just injure you, but take something precious from you like you took something precious from me. So I spent weeks plotting, doing research on your friends, your family and your past. For a long time, it seemed to be an exercise in frustration; you were squeaky clean.
"Eventually, an old newspaper turned up a photo of you and a green stallion at some live event. The caption read 'Pinkie Pie and Markie Sparks enjoying DJ P0n-3's Megamix'. Funny thing, none of my research had turned up anything on this Sparks guy in the past year. So I thought maybe you guys had a falling out and he could give me some dirt on you.
"I packed my bags and headed for the last place I could place him: here in Hoofington. I asked around and eventually somebody pointed me to a back alley where a sorry figure was rooting through rubbish bins for scraps. Sure enough, it was Markie Sparks, now destitute; a junkie scraping together two bits for his next fix. I wasn't sure if he was coherent enough to understand me, but as soon as I mentioned your name, he flew off the handle and attacked me!
"He was strong; stronger than you'd expect from a pony that could barely focus on putting one hoof in front of the other. I'm no pushover, though, and eventually got the better of him. After a few whacks to settle him down, I got the whole story out of him. Stop me if you've heard this one:
"A year beforehand, Pinkie Pie, party animal of Ponyville, was having one of her famous open-air celebrations with everybody invited. She had everything a pony could want at a party - music, drinks, snacks, games, events and entertainers. And with her was her good friend, Markie Sparks. Sparks was an innocent soul and got swept up in the swing of things, not knowing that Pinkie had also arranged a few treats for the ponies with a taste for the harder stuff. As a friend of the hostess, poor Sparks was led by the nose, so to speak, by one of the dealers to a private party with a selection of hard drugs. Unfortunately, he quickly took a liking to the stuff and over-indulged himself, becoming addicted.
"After that, he was never the same. He lost his job when he missed too many deadlines and his house when he couldn't make the repayments. He lost his family when he borrowed too much money and his friends when he started stealing from them. And where was Pinkie Pie during all this? Nowhere to be seen. She didn't care about some pony who couldn't take a party favour.
"Poor Sparks was run out of town after a few violent altercations with the locals. When I found him he was well on his way into an early grave. And I felt so sorry for him. Here was another kindred soul who had his life ruined by you.
"I rented a house in Hoofington and had Sparks move in with me, then put him on a rehabilitation treatment. A local doctor provided some medication for him, while I gave him as much emotional support as I was capable of.
"Sparks fought me for a long time. He would run off to find a fix, but I had made it clear to the local dealers that he was off-limits. You know, if they didn't want to go home with their teeth in a baggie. Then I'd track him down and drag him back to the house. It went on like this for weeks and it was such an ordeal for both of us, I thought we would never get through it. But one day I came back from the market with a present for him: a typewriter that I'd found at a second-hand stall. When I gave it to him, he suddenly just started crying and hugging me and thanking me for everything I'd done for him; that he was a terrible person and didn't deserve a friend like me."
Gilda wiped her eyes with the back of her talon. "And before I knew it, I was crying too and told him that we deserved each other. We spent the night together in front of the fire, just holding one another.
"Things got better after that. Sparks got healthier and happier. The doctor took him off the medication and I really believe he's kicked the habit for good. All together, we've been together for ten months and I'm hoping we will be for a lot longer."
She swallowed the last morsel of her meal and put the fork down on the plate. Pinkie had finished hers long ago and had been listening intently to Gilda's story.
"But now, we both have some business to attend to: you. You see, Sparks is hoping to get back into the reporting game and has a great idea for a first article: the truth about Pinkie Pie's wonderful parties. About how her illegal party favours led to the downfall of an innocent pony into a harrowing year of picking through scraps in the gutter.
"Oh, it probably wouldn't lead to a conviction and your friends wouldn't believe it, but the public would. No moral citizen would ever come to one of your parties ever again and any of your druggie pals would be watched like - heh - like a griffon. That is what I'm taking from you, Pinkie. Your parties. You'll never be able to organise one again without attracting scorn and scrutiny. The kids will stop coming to Sugar Cube Corner and either the Cakes will fire you or the business will go under altogether, leaving you on the streets.
"I had Sparks send you that letter because I wanted you to know who was behind what's coming next. And I wanted you to know that it's your own fault."
Gilda drained her wine glass and set it on the table. She was grinning hugely at Pinkie Pie. This was her revenge, the revenge that had taken more than a year. The revenge that had given her back her self-respect and a found her a new friend. Here it all peaked as she watched the news sink into her nemesis' mind.
"Yay!" yelled Pinkie.
"What? Yay?" Gilda was stunned by the reaction.
"Yay! That was a great story, Gilda. I love stories. But you missed some parts."
Pinkie finished her own wine and refilled both glasses from the bottle. She pulled a small white card from under her mane and put it on the table in front of Gilda, who picked it up, turned it over to check the back and turned it towards her again.
"5-64-16851," she read. "I don't get it."
"Come on, Gilda. You're a smartypants now - I know you can figure it out."
Gilda turned the number over in her mind but could not identify it. The format was familiar, though. She struggled with recollection for a while before being inspired. She pulled her copy of Animal Souls towards her and opened the front cover to the dedications page and the white sheet that had been stuck to it. The sheet had a list of numbers, the last dozen being a familiar one - her library number. She had checked the book out every month for the past year. Right above the first instance was a different number.
"5-64-16851," she read. "This is your library card. You - you had this book before me?"
"Yeppers, " laughed Pinkie. "Twilight Sparkle runs the library in Ponyville and she loves books like these. In fact, she had borrowed all the philosophy books from the surrounding branches, including Gryfada. I told her to let me know if Gryfada asked for anything from the Ponyville library, whether it was about me or not. When they did, I checked the order number and knew you were studying, looking for a way to get back at me, so I read through them all and found a few that would help you come to some conclusions about your behaviour."
Pinkie tittered into her hoof. Gilda stared at her, momentarily struck mute.
"And then came the requests that I had been expecting - newspapers that I had appeared in. I made sure you got a few that went nowhere just to get you worked up for a real lead, then sent you the one about me and Sparks."
"Poor Sparks. Don't blame him for this - I doubt he even remembers the events properly after everything he's been through. It's true that he got his addiction while at one of my parties, but I didn't invite those dealers. I hate those party poopers and wouldn't have let them in if I'd known. I felt so guilty when I found out what happened to Sparks.
"I tried to help him, honestly I did. But he blamed me for what happened and wouldn't even speak to me. I sent others, but he was violent and very strong, so they couldn't help him either. I needed someone strong enough to be able to stand up to him and sympathetic enough to care about his welfare.
"So, I sent you. I did what was necessary to make sure you would seek him out and help him. And you did, becoming a better person on the way. I'm so happy that Sparks is getting better and is making friends again."
Pinkie smiled warmly. "Thank you so much Gilda."
The room seemed to be spinning around Gilda. This wasn't how it was supposed to go. This was supposed to be her moment of triumph, but Pinkie was tearing it to pieces. She latched onto the one avenue she had left.
"Sparks won't believe that if I tell him not to. I can still get him to write the article and ruin your reputation."
Pinkie stood up and counted out enough money to pay for the meal. "Of course you can, Gilda. But you won't because now you know the truth: that what I did was for the good of both of you. And you've grown up enough to know that even if it was a bad thing to do to you, it was done with good intentions."
Pinkie put the money down on the table and pushed her chair in. "And if you can admit that, then you're a good enough person to be friends with whoever you want... and I'll make sure Rainbow Dash knows how much you've changed."
Gilda leaned forward and put her face in her talons, tears rolling down her beak. "You win, Pinkie."
"Don't be silly," said Pinkie, looking back from her path to the door. "Everybody won today."