"A Cup of Joe"
Written by The Descendant
Concept by Bronymian Rhapsody/Animal Man
Chapter 1: "Plain"
He awoke, as he always had, before the alarm even began to go off.
He sat up in bed, looked out the darkened window. As Joe let his head wobble from side to side he felt the weariness wash over him. Soon the morning's amnesia-like forgetfulness departed and he began to remember all that he was to do that day.
It wasn't much…it was what it had always been.
Well, not always.
He waited, there, in the dark, as the clock slowly worked its way towards four in the morning. He watched it slowly tick away, saw the luminescent hands drive almost imperceptibly towards that unforgiving hour.
It was a good alarm clock, and he didn't want it to feel that it was unappreciated. So, he waited…and soon enough it began to ring.
He gently depressed the big stopper and the clock went back to cheerfully ticking, almost as though it were proud of a job well done. Joe stretched himself, dropped out of the bed, and soon enough went across the cold floors of his apartment to his bathroom.
As he completed his routine he found himself staring into the mirror. He examined the pony standing there… saw that there were beginning to be some wrinkles as he smirked at himself, lines alongside his green eyes…
"To the Well with that…" he said, his voice floating out over the few small dark rooms. As the magical lamps reacted to his presence he prepared for his day, taking a few moments to stare at some photographs…a family of unicorns…
…one now broken irreparably.
Within a half of an hour Joe was outside, his hooves making their way down the cobbled streets of the capital to where his doughnut shop stood silently, awaiting his arrival.
In his mind Joe knew Canterlot to be a beautiful city, he knew that it's shop lined streets that glowed in the lamplight gave way to high towers crowned with domes that glinted in the sun. He knew these things for fact, knew that he had seen them, knew that the capital was indeed the jewel in the crown of the Equestrian cities.
But as he made his way through the silent streets all that met his eyes were the outlines of buildings shimmering in the lamplight and the distant voices of stallions like himself who made their living in these times before dawn broke.
He turned past the guideway, out from the side alleys and onto the High Street that led past the palace gates. With one more turn he arrived in front of the familiar building. With a waft of his magic the door came unlocked, and as he walked within his doughnut shop Joe's magic began to play out around him and the unicorn once more set the building to its purpose… the construction of the baked goods that had given him his mark and his purpose.
After a cursory check of the dining room and the counter he walked into the kitchen and with his magic he began to open up the packages that he had left behind the noon before, began going through the rhythm that he had long ago developed to make his goods as quickly and proficiently as possible
Joe hummed quietly to himself as he looked the chalkboard over. As he did the flavors and styles of doughnuts he was to make the day played out before him. He smiled to himself at the choices he had made.
At least he could count on this choice not to backfire on him.
The predictable patterns began to come together, and his practiced expertise began to bear fruit as the mixer came to life beside him and the cold milk poured itself as he went past.
Joe crossed over to the metal cabinet, pulled it open with his hoof to make sure his magic would go uninterrupted. It came open with a wobbly effect; the thin metal of the cabinet shaking as it was pulled loose from its stops.
From within he pulled a starched white apron, the fabric hanging rigidly across his chest as he risked expending a little magic to tie the knot. From the shelf above came a crisp white hat, the next one to come out of the long thin paper box were a small army of the foldables awaited their use.
Joe looked into the little mirror that stood inside the door of the cabinet, once again looking into the sunken eyes of an older pony, one he was is not sure he recognized entirely. Smirking to himself again he adjusted his hat and ran his hoof off across the front of the apron and straightened his bowtie.
Turning slightly he looked back over the kitchen. The first bowl in the mixer came to a sudden stop…just as predicted and on schedule.
With an ignition of his magic it moved from the mixer to the doughnut machine, and as that device came to life the rings of dough began to fall from it into the boiling oil.
Joe looked on as his magic worked its way across the cleverly designed machines, some even older than himself and all working perfectly according to their purpose and function. Apart from the noise made by the operations of the machines themselves the doughnut shop was still and quiet, just as it ever was at this time before he opened, just as always was when he was alone.
Joe felt his head bow a little bit, and wiping his hooves up and across his eyes he found himself staring back into the cabinet, just past that stallion staring back in the mirror. He slowly closed it once again using his hoof. Yet, as he did he could not help but stare at the other door, the one not so frequently opened.
He stared at it for a second before pulling it open. As he looked within a smile swam across his face.
The bright lights of the kitchen caused a glint to fly across the armor, and as Joe looked upon his uniform memories came back over him, ones he was not certain that he wished to indulge, yet memories they were…
There was a knock on the door. Joe jumped slightly, quickly closed the cabinet, hiding the armor once again. He looked up to the clock and knew whom it must be. He trotted earnestly across the kitchen to the back door were the delivery platform stood. As he turned the corner past the freezer he looked into the familiar eyes of the milk pony, Sweet Cream, as he and his bottles stood beneath the light that hung over the door.
He smiled and nodded to the pony that returned the gestures as the door came open.
"Good morning Joe," said Sweet Cream, "just the usual today?"
"Yeah, yeah… not doing anything too special today, middle of the week, I think that the usual 2% will do," said Joe opening the door wide so that the dolly cart could enter within.
Joe slipped back inside to open the freezer door as Sweet Cream slid forward, rocking the dolly cart back so that Joe could slide past, the two working ponies dancing the same dance that they had danced for thousands of mornings before as each went about their honest work. Soon Sweet Cream had dropped the bottles within and as he crossed out of the freezer the old bottles went with him, ready to return to the creamery.
"Have a good day Joe," said the pony once more, pulling his cart through the streets.
"You too," called Joe, watching him go. Within a few minutes the sounds of the cart receded, and Joe was left standing there quietly as the tendrils of the far-off dawn began to creep into the sky.
A short while later he was standing over a fresh tray of doughnuts, coating each with glaze or frosting. As he did he looked back up to the chalkboard as each tray settled before him, matching his predictions as to what his regulars would be wanting that day.
His regulars…he thought of the familiar faces that would soon be slowly cantering within. The slow cycles of "hello's" and "good morning's" that had brought some familiarity…that had become part of the background of his life.
As he slowly walked out into the café his hooves made sharp sounds across the tiles. He stopped, paused. As he did he looked up into the altar above the mirror behind the counter with a pained expression.
"Morning Beanie…morning gents…"
The trays slid into the display cases, the warm doughnuts slowly cooling, the drip of their coatings solidifying into lumps of sugar and long thin lines of frosting.
As he did so the sun burst into the sky, and he bowed his head in reverence to the sovereign whom he had once served….one whom he still served in his own way.
As he opened his eyes movement on the other side of the distant window revealed the figure of Artificer Call, the older stallion dancing a bit in the morning chill. Joe looked upon him and his newspaper, shaking his head as he turned to face the clock. It was still five minutes to five…why did Call always show up early if he knew that Joe didn't open the door until the appointed hour?
Joe stopped, looked down into his own blurry reflection in the spotless countertop. Of course he knew why…because it's what Call had always done. No different, he realized, than how he moved through his day…by instinct, tradition…
…by tired, weary routine.
If that's what it took to keep the memory at bay, so be it.
Joe sighed and looked up to the calendar beneath the altars. As he studied it he looked for different events that his customers might be talking about, something to chat about with the regulars.
The annual Dawn Tattoo was coming up next week…that would be important. He looked back up to the altar, saw all the familiar faces staring down at him from beneath their armor, remembered standing with them as the bugle sounded…
At once a familiar twinge moved through the stallion, and he looked at the clock instinctually. The hour had arrived, and as the carillons began to chime along the High Street he took one last look to make sure all was in place and moved to the door.
"Morning Call," he said, lifting the lock and opening the door with his magic.
"Morning!" answered the stallion, moving briskly past Joe and making for the same stool before the counter where he had sat for all these years.
"What can I get ya'?" asked Joe, watching the pony take his seat, saw how the stallion had quickly possessed it, as though claiming his territory.
"You know what I prefer," answered the pony, unfolding the paper.
Joe smirked, held the door open just a minute longer as even more familiar, if nameless, faces began appearing on the High Street.
Joe quickly filled these orders, poured the coffee that this first wave of customers was seeking. He had begun, over the years, to see the firm pattern of the customers…first came the working ponies, usually earth ponies with a smattering of unicorns, who actually made the city work. Construction, fabrication, custodians…these were the ones to whom his hot java was as important as mother's milk, these who had a long, demanding day ahead of them.
Artificer Call seemed out of place in that atmosphere. As the burly ponies greeted each other he sat alone on his stool sipping his tea and reading his paper, nibbling on his double-chocolate doughnuts.
Call had done something meaningful and cultured in the dim and distant past, and had essentially been living on the royalties from it for decades.
Damn fine life, thought Joe, as the next wave began. He greeted more familiar faces as the white-collar ponies began to arrive. The clerical workers, the officers of the parliament, the very living face of the bureaucracy stood before him ordering maple glazed and custard filled doughnuts by the bagful. The unicorns thanked him and then went out into the street…trying to walk while balancing these and cups of hot coffee whose vapor wafted around them in the brisk morning air.
At just after seven the next wave began…university folks mostly. Some of them were administrators, a few professors (some of whom talked with Call on occasion), but it was the foals Joe liked to see the most.
Foals, he knew, was a stretch. These university students, on the very edge of their adult lives, came to him to escape the blasé cafeteria food. The unappetizing contents of the silver trays were no competition for the solid feel of a warm cider doughnut on a cold morning.
He had seen some of these for years, decades. To these he remarked upon how "grown up" they looked with their backpacks over their shoulders, heading up the hill to the Old Main beyond.
One, in fact, had in her time at the university become as regular as any of his most familiar faces. Twilight Sparkle had been waiting outside during her years here with books already open, reading, studying even in the pale light of a distant dawn through the illumination of her horn. Joe recalled her little dragon Spike slumbering on the pile of texts as they waited outside as the door came open.
It drove Call mad to be second.
Twilight Sparkle…he'd heard that the filly was the Royal Designate in Ponyville now. He was hardly surprised. Smart cookie, that one was. She would always talk to him as he poured her some more coffee…though she actually preferred tea and hot chocolate if it wasn't exam time. In his mind he kept her usual order lined up with all of his regulars, though it was doubtful she'd ever come back.
Too bad, he'd like to see how big Spike had grown.
Joe shook his head, looked back to the clock. Seven-thirty…good. He looked on as the last of the college foals began to dissipate. The tapping sound of Call beating a rhythm with his mug reached him, a little sound of polite anxiety. He picked up the coffee carafe and moved along the counter filling the cups of those who were lingering.
Having filled Call's mug of tea he grabbed the coffee carafe and went into the café and saw to anyone who looked like they were going to need the extra boost that only the dark mix could provide to get through the day.
He placed the coffee carafe back under the brewer, then looked to the door.
Exactly as expected two big pegasi appeared, the deep grey of their coats contrasting sharply with their golden armor that gleamed in the new morning sun.
"Citizen!" announced one as they entered, a younger one with a stiff countenance, "We are to inform you that Their Very Majesties, The Princesses Celestia and Luna, have designated you to provide your wares upon the morrow for their table. You have been selected for this honor due…"
"New colt?" interrupted Joe, looking to the other pegasus.
"Yup," answered the older guardspony, removing his helmet, "I'll have my usual, Joe. Yeah, the princesses will have their usual tomorrow too, you know the routine."
As the younger Royal Guardspony began to deflate, a stunned look across his eyes, Joe looked up to see more large stallions entering, all tired…
"You going to order, private?" asked another pegasus, sliding behind the crestfallen guardspony. The younger pegasus turned, shocked that somepony would speak to him in such a manner.
It was only when the private looked at the brown pegasus that he recognized his first sergeant. Looking back at Joe he quietly mouthed, "Two Hofston Crèmes, and a chocolate milk…please."
It was a good bet that if you arrived at Joe's Doughnuts after about eight in the morning that most of the larger stallions (and even, on occasion, some of the more fit looking mares) of each race you saw there were, in fact, Royal Guardsponies.
They too had lives outside of the garrison. Many of them, especially the older ones, wished to be home to see their families off to their days, or were on their way up to the palace to begin their watches.
In the beards, manes, and eyebrows you could catch sight of the white paint of Celestia, or the dark grey of Luna, depending upon whom they were answering to that day…whichever of the Sister Sovereigns their regiments were symbolically serving on the rotation.
So it was that though the noted colors were nowhere to be seen, and the famed armor almost entirely absent, that the atmosphere of the shop became more…familiar.
"So," said Joe, leaning on the counter into the midst of the serviceponies, "I see that the Dawn Tattoo is coming up…"
"Yeah, what a pain in the flank," answered the first sergeant with a disapproving chuckle; the grey paint smearing across the mug from where it still lay hidden in his beard.
"They got you practicing for that already?" asked Joe, wiping the counter with a damp cloth, the flecks of crumbs being gathered up in his magic.
"Whattcha mean 'already', Joe?" asked the first sergeant, Cold Winds, arching an eyebrow.
Joe himself looked puzzled, had almost begun to ask, "What do you mean by 'Whattcha mean'?" when the door came open and the entire assemblage of guardsponies within the shop stood at attention. The young private, who Joe had noticed had been eying him warily, looked around in surprise before bolting to his hooves.
"Dammit lads, for the love of the morning!" laughed a large earth pony, "How often must I repeat that you need not salute me in here?"
"Until we're sure it won't result in K.P. if we don't!" called out an anonymous voice. Amid the laughter the group settled, and the large earth pony and another beside him cantered up to the counter.
"Colonel, first lieutenant," nodded Joe to each, smiling, "The usual?"
"Indeed, and for The Sister's sake, Joe, it's Bright Nights…for the thousandth time!" laughed the jovial stallion.
Joe looked down to the display case and prepared the order of the officers. As he did he couldn't help but notice that the private was looking at him again, this time with a tepid look that startled Joe with its latent apathy.
Later, after the crowd had begun to slow down, Joe began to restock. Checking one last time to see that his regular were all happy he slipped off into the kitchen. As he did he heard of the voice of the private as he communicated his doubt to the ponies gathered there.
"So," he said, haltingly, "Joe…the pony with the doughnut as his mark, Joe, right? Yeah, he…he was one of us?"
"Is," answered the voice of Cold Winds sternly, "he is one of us…he's one of us, you never leave The Guard, even if you do."
Joe stopped above the sink in the kitchen.
"Look up there," Joe heard another familiar voice call, another private he knew, Broken Feather, "Look up there over the mirror…those are all ponies Joe served with in The Guard. I served with them too…most of them have moved on to civilian lives…they've got their pensions, or were honorably discharged for some other reason."
"Oh Celestia, Oh Luna," said the private, "Those two have mourning bands around their pictures…did, were they…"
On the opposite side of the wall Joe hovered over the sink. It was as though he could feel the young private's eyes coasting down the line of pictures…over the line of friends and comrades.
"Duty," said Cold Winds, "You never leave The Guard…especially when you leave it that way."
There was quiet in the café. Joe looked down at the sink, stared into it as he realized whose picture the pegasus would soon be gazing upon.
"Hey, look," called the private, "Those are Regular Army down at that end…yeah, that's definitely steel grey armor…"
"Joe came up through the Regular Army like the rest of us…like all of us…" spoke Broken Feather, "He earned his way in too."
"Really?" answered the voice of the private, his voice ringing out over the other voices that filled the café.
"Hey…hey, that one at the end, the big picture, the one with the flowers under it…it has a mourning band around it too…who, who is that? Do, do either of you know?" asked the private in a distressingly calm tone.
Joe lowered his head into the sink.
There was a long, agonizing pause.
"Yes, yes, we know," answered Cold Winds slowly, quietly. "It's Joe's baby brother, Coffee Bean."
Another pause, this one unbearable.
"Oh Celestia," said the private, drawing a sharp breath, "Oh Luna."
Joe placed his head fully into the sink, let the little hat become crumpled and damp in the spots of water that lay there. He felt the pinch begin behind his eyes, and he took a series of deep breaths.
It was too late. Already the image of his little brother manifested in his memory, standing before him proudly in his new uniform, smiling at him from beside the mixer.
Smiling at him…
"Oh Beanie," Joe whispered, the precious name echoing around him in the metal confines of the sink, "Oh Beanie. Beanie, I'm so sorry…I'm so sorry…"
He closed his eyes, let the cold of the metal and splatter of water reach up into him, draw out the tears before they could form.
As the sounds of the café reached him from beyond the wall Joe lay there as single drips from the faucet fell across his face and the morning moved on and on and on.
After a while Joe returned to the café, the last tray of doughnuts hovering before him. He filled Call's last complimentary cup of tea as the older pony reached the end of the paper.
"So, uhhh…Joe," called Cold Winds, searching for a topic, motioning to his mug, "Your father is a big importer of coffee, huh?"
"Yup, biggest in Central Equestria," said Joe, filling the mug and motioning to the other guardsponies nearby, each shaking their head to signify that they too were finishing up.
"You have to go up to Manehattan to find anypony bigger….of course, Java runs the business now, Dad and Mom went off to Foalida a few years back…"
"Java?" came the questioning voice of the private.
"Yeah," said Joe, moving the damp rag across the counter once more. "We all were named after the stuff…my big brother Java, my little sis Mocha, myself of course…baby brother…"
"Joe?" asked Broken Feather.
Joe looked back up to him with a painted smile, realized that the private was gazing at him with an expression of detached judgement.
"I…I'm surprised that you were in grey today," Joe said, recovering, motioning to the pegasus, "I thought your regiment was supposed to be in Celestia's white this week?"
"Oh, originally we were," answered Broken Feather, "but what with the schedule moving around with the extra Autumnal Equinox Day we've added…"
Joe turned, lifted the calendar. That was right…Princess Celestia had deemed an extra day to be added to the equinox holiday, what with Princess Luna back and all...
Joe scratched his chin, wondered how that was going to mess things up. He wondered how many of his regulars would be in on the extra holiday. Autumn equinox, seemed like a good day to begin the cider instead of applejuice…definitely get more cider doughnuts in.
He half thought to ask some of them if they'd be in, but as he turned he saw that his regulars were now talking among themselves, and the new customers were finishing up.
So, once more, he pushed the washcloth along the counter.
Silence once more consumed the café, and as the customers begin to filter out the day dragged towards noon.
There was coughing, Call's nearest equivalent to "goodbye". He nodded to Joe as he exited…first in, last out.
So, once more, Joe was left alone in his café.
Cleaning up was always pretty easy. With a dose of his magic the dishes began washing, the trash was wrapped up, and the mops danced across the floor. Despite the monumental amount of coffee his customers drank, not to mention tea, hot chocolate, and all three types of milk, his bathroom was always pretty neat…thank goodness, so, that was that.
As all became spic-and-span he began to lay out the ingredients for tomorrow. With that he threw the crumpled hat in the garbage and placed the apron in the hamper. It wasn't nearly full, so, no need to bring it home to wash…
As he began to leave he took one last glance around the café, and up to the altar.
As he passed through the door into the kitchen he stopped before the metal cabinet. He stared at the door for a second…thought of the armor within…
He quickly shut the thought out of his mind and went to clear the sink.
With that he checked everything over, made sure that the front door was locked, and existed through the back door, checking it twice.
With that his day ended, and he took a deep breath and contemplated another few bits honestly earned.
He opened his eyes. It wasn't even one in the afternoon.
Joe made his way through the market, the place being thankfully essentially empty in these early afternoon hours. This at least was the one advantage of his work, that the afternoon hours were his.
As he looked over the fish at one mongers stand he heard a voice reaching out, one that he knew. It benefits a shopkeeper to know his customers, to greet them. Besides, he doubted, nobody would know him outside of his shop without his hat, bowtie, and apron if he didn't point himself out…
He turned the corner nearest to where he had heard the voice…and instantly turned back to look over a stall which appeared to be selling an astounding assortment of oven mitts.
"…but I can't imagine leaving The Guard," said the pegasus private, the very one who had been eating in the café a few hours ago. With his paint and armor off he was revealed to be a very brazen yellow color, his mark a cascade of morning light reaching over a cloud, "I would have done anything to get into The Guard. Hey, the Well knows I did do everything…"
A strikingly beautiful pegasus filly turned the corner after him, her melodious voice reaching deep within Joe as he tried his best to make it seem as though he weren't looking at the perfect pair as they made their was among the stalls.
"You didn't think that when I came to you in the hospital," she laughed, rolling her blue eyes, "All you were worried about then was if I'd still love you if they had taken the wing off…"
Joe stood stock still as they passed directly behind him, the colt lifting his forehoof to gather up hers, the sound of their small kiss evident to him even over the sound of the market. Joe pushed ahead a little bit more, gazing deep over the selection of oven mitts to hide is presence, turning his body to attempt to disguise his mark.
Of course, he realized, the colt had probably been injured in the regular service, just like he had…it had to have been important too, if he'd been selected for The Guard.
Like he had…like he had a long time ago.
"Yes, you are right, but this doughnut stallion, Joe, he just didn't seem like…the right stuff…"
Joe closed his eyes and sighed silently. He opened them and pretended to be intensely interested in the oven mitts before him as the words of the pair of pegasi continued to float on top of the other sounds of the market.
"Don't be mean!" she implored, her tone rising almost in cadence with Joe's respect for the filly.
"I'm…I'm sorry, I wasn't being mean…just observing. He, he seemed so out of it, like…distant. Every time I looked at him he was so…out of it. I think it was because of his brother, the dead one," said the private as he lead her off.
"That's so sad…take me there one morning, when your shift changes," she spoke, nuzzling beside him.
"Sure, babe," said the young private, kissing her once more at they trotted away.
Joe barely heard it. Inside his head a single thought rolled around and around, driving at him, consuming him…
"His brother, the dead one."
Joe had walked out of the market and out into the High Street before he realized that he had even left. He looked down into his own outstretched foreleg to see that all he had bought to eat that night was a tiny spinach quiche and an oven mitt.
He hoped that he had actually remembered to pay for them.
He returned to his loft, the quiet apartment. As the early afternoon slid into the late he walked about the space, picking up objects, pondering them, putting them down again inches from where his magic had first lifted them.
He looked at photos for long minutes before remembering the names of those within, stared at them for long moments before the names of places shown there had meaning.
At five o'clock p.m. he sat down to his dinner of warmed over spinach quiche and partially warmed oven mitt. The later had been an error, once more, and he felt very sorry for it.
He felt very sorry indeed…about a lot of things.
"I'm so sorry, Beanie…I'm so sorry I got you killed…"
He stared at his dinner as the day began to cool, the autumn day stealing away the heat around his porch and out of his meal. He looked upon the quiche until he could stomach it no more and then tossed it over the railing of the porch into the street below.
He then placed the oven mitt in a drawer and went to the bathroom to prepare for bed.